The Big Idea

The Closet McCain

Psst … he’s not really a conservative.

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Sen. John McCain 

John McCain, whom everyone expects to run for president in 2008, is pandering to the Republican base in a way that is politically shrewd but disappointing to his nonconservative admirers. Among other lapses, he recently endorsed South Dakota’s intentionally unconstitutional abortion ban and voted to extend the Bush tax cuts he opposed in 2001. A few years ago, McCain called Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance” and compared him to Louis Farrakhan. Now McCain is on his way to give a speech at Falwell U., and Falwell reciprocates the good will, noting with oddball phraseology that McCain “clearly is an advocate of the husband-female family.”

Most liberal commentators take McCain’s love fest with the neo-Calvinists at face value, arguing that he’s finally revealing his true colors. A few months ago, The Nation ran a cover story titled “The Real McCain,” which contended that the Arizona senator is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. To the American Prospect, McCain is Barry Goldwater’s true heir. A couple of weeks ago in the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote, “The bottom line is that Mr. McCain isn’t a moderate; he’s a man of the hard right.”

But the literal-minded left has McCain all wrong. He’s trying to win over enough of his party’s conservative base to win, for sure. But this is a stratagem—the only one, in fact, that gives him a shot at surviving a Republican presidential primary. Discount his repositioning a bit, and McCain looks like the same unconventional character who emerged during the Clinton years: a social progressive, a fiscal conservative, and a military hawk. Should he triumph in the primaries, we can expect this more appealing John McCain to come roaring back.

Democrats alarmed by crossover affection for McCain usually begin by complaining about his down-the-line anti-abortion voting record. But McCain’s smoke signals spell out something different—an unsuccessful attempt to back away from a mandatory position he no longer believes in, if he ever really did. In August 1999, McCain said, “I’d love to see a point where Roev.Wade is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roev. Wade, which would then force women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations.” This wasn’t a fluke comment—McCain said the same thing more than once. But his trial balloon was quickly shot down by the theo-cons, prompting him to abandon the experiment. The same thing happened again following McCain’s suggestion that the nutty Republican platform plank on the topic be rewritten, and again after he made the comment that if his daughter—who was 15 at the time—became pregnant, it would be up to her to decide whether to have an abortion. Despite his professions of fidelity, the pro-life lobby knows better than to trust him. Pro-choicers should similarly recognize that McCain is a hostage, not a hostage-taker, on this issue.

A similar pattern describes his views on gay rights. I remember McCain telling me during an interview in the mid-1990s about how a gay member of his staff sensitized him to the issue. When he ran for president in 2000, he won the endorsement of the Log Cabin Republicans. The Advocate calls him “notoriously pro-gay.” In 2004, McCain was one of only six Republican senators to vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment, and after a Massachusetts court affirmed gay unions, he took the position that states could decide their own marriage laws without federal help. McCain has lately fallen back into formation, saluting an obnoxious Arizona bill that would deny benefits to unmarried couples. Gay leaders in his state, who know better than to take such maneuvering seriously, have already let him off the hook. The rest of us should be sophisticated enough to recognize that politics is the art of the possible, and that what’s in McCain’s heart on this subject (as President Bush might say) is not a viable stance for any presidential candidate just yet, especially a Republican one.

McCain was not always the moderate, tolerant character I’m describing. He was a conservative before he was a liberal before he became a conservative again. McCain began his political career in the 1980s as an untroubled Reagan Republican. His outlook changed drastically, however, after he nearly went down in the Keating Five scandal, for which he blamed both himself and the money-politics system. In the early 1990s, McCain caught the reform bug and became the Senate’s foremost advocate of campaign finance reform, as well as an outspoken opponent of corporate welfare and pork-barrel spending. His reform zeal opened the door to other heresies and formed the basis for his presidential run. Part of what was compelling about McCain as a candidate in the 2000 primaries was that he was a politician in genuine flux. On the campaign trail, you could see him losing faith in conservative orthodoxy on issues like poverty, income inequality, health care, and global warming, spurred by encounters with humans in New Hampshire and elsewhere.

This political evolution continued through Bush’s first term. McCain rejected the president’s fiscal recklessness and tax cuts skewed to the wealthy. He allied himself with Democratic colleagues on a variety of social issues, including HMO reform, environmentalism, and gun control. Democrats implored him to switch teams, as a couple of his advisers, frozen out by the right, actually did. But instead of accepting John Kerry’s offer to become his running mate in 2004, McCain embraced Bush’s re-election effort, and his searching phase largely came to an end. Since the president’s second term began, McCain has been uncharacteristically calculating, building bridges to Bush and the evangelicals and choosing his battles far more selectively. But if you watch closely, you still catch plenty of signals that the old new McCain isn’t dead, just hiding out. He continues to take on the president and his own party where it matters to him, on the use of torture in the war on terrorism and on immigration, where he sponsored a bill with Ted Kennedy to allow millions of illegal immigrants become citizens.

I’m not arguing that McCain is a liberal Trojan horse running in the wrong party. If you need to label him, he’s a Teddy Roosevelt progressive—militant, crusading, reformist, and hostile to concentrated power. The Bull Moose has temporarily turned into a performing elephant. But the Moose will be back—around March 2008, if everything goes according to plan.