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What is up with McCain?

By W. James Antle III
web posted June 11, 2001

Washington is abuzz with speculation as to the plans and motives of that problematic and unpredictable Arizona Republican, Sen. John McCain. Rumors exist that McCain will leave the Republican Party. His acolytes are planting stories in major newspapers about him challenging President Bush in some fashion in 2004. Republican colleagues are finding his vote on crucial legislation more unreliable.

What is going on? McCain began his political career as a conservative, a man of the right. Ronald Reagan brought him out to speak at one of his governor's prayer breakfasts in California. When "Firing Line" conducted its debate on the Panama Canal Treaty, McCain was the military adviser to the panel members who opposed ratification, including Reagan and Pat Buchanan. He succeeded Barry Goldwater in the Senate. As recently as last year, during the presidential campaign, McCain's lifetime American Conservative Union rating stood at 83 percent and his Americans for Democratic Action liberal quotient for that year was just 5 percent.

John McCainSince his presidential campaign, promoted by a cadre of neo-conservative intellectuals and journalists who saw him as the embodiment of their new "national greatness" ideology, McCain has increasingly defined bipartisanship as alignment with the positions of the Democratic Party. He began his presidential campaign with his eccentric embrace of campaign finance reform, normally a Democratic cause, and a smaller tax cut than what either George W. Bush or Steve Forbes were proposing. Even on taxes, his stance was at least arguably defensible on conservative grounds, as he favored a more moderate tax cut to avoid deficit spending and leave revenues to boost the defense budget. By the time the campaign was over, he had lurched leftward in attacking Bush's tax plan as a boon to the rich, embraced a militaristic foreign policy, continued to advocate a campaign finance reform bill that would muzzle conservative interest groups, denounced two of the leading figures in the religious right and suggested to a group liberal GOP donors that Roe v. Wade was perfectly fine with him.

Since then, Sen. McCain has continued to cultivate warm relations with the liberal press that so routinely praises him. He reacted to Jim Jeffords' defection by publicly scolding his party, telling Republicans to "grow up." He is cosponsoring gun control legislation with Sen. Joe Lieberman and HMO regulations with Sen. Ted Kennedy. His denunciations of "K street" lobbyists who oppose his signature McCain-Feingold bill have taken on the character of a jihad. There have also been threats that McCain will attempt to revive his constitutionally dubious tobacco legislation, which contained large tax increases, new regulation and benefits to lawsuit-happy trial lawyers. In his biggest deviation from traditional conservative orthodoxy yet, he joined liberal Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who seems to view the GOP as a family heirloom rather than a party with a platform worth implementing, in voting against the Bush tax cut. This is tantamount to a Republican voting against the Reagan tax cuts. President Bush's tax cut legislation even won the votes of two dozen House Democrats, 12 Senate Democrats and Jim Jeffords!

Paul Weyrich has publicly predicted that McCain will leave the Republican Party and run for president. Former Congressman John Leboutillier has written in his Newsmax column about the scenario of a three-way race between Bush, Al Gore and McCain in 2004. Conservatives have become so frustrated with him that some in Arizona have begun circulating recall petitions. No one can accurately predict what John McCain will do next. He says he does not plan on running for president or leaving the GOP. He denies any anti-Dubya animus. This has done little to quiet the speculation, even among some of his supporters.

Regardless of whether anything ever comes of these rumors, it is to McCain's advantage to continue fueling them. Jeffords' decision to become an independent and caucus with the Democrats upstaged McCain as the GOP's most loveable maverick. It also resulted in a power shift more consequential than anything McCain has been able to do thus far. So McCain needs to appear willing to undertake more radical actions if he is to maintain his king-maker position. Thus, he dines with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and President Bush while his aides are talking about him running for president.

Talk of McCain running for president as a Democrat is hopelessly naive. While he would generate some interest and win some votes in Democratic primaries, he is no more likely to win the Democratic presidential nomination than the GOP nod. While he has recently been moving too far to the left to be acceptable for most conservatives, his record is still significantly to the right of anything the liberal special interest groups that run the Democratic Party would ever tolerate. McCain would face opposition from scores of Democratic activists, would be targeted relentlessly in ads by opponents for his "right-wing" voting record and would be almost unanimously rejected by the bloc of party leaders who comprise the "super-delegates" at a Democratic national convention. While many social conservatives have been sharply critical of McCain on the abortion issue and organizations like the National Right to Life Committee have ardently opposed McCain-Feingold, McCain's voting record is predominantly pro-life. He has in the past voted for versions of the human life amendment and continues to state that he would ban abortion in 98 percent of cases. Feminist leaders made it known that Evan Bayh would be an unacceptable running mate for Gore simply because he had voted for the partial-birth abortion ban, favored by many who otherwise support "abortion rights." McCain might denounce Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but his Senate voting record agrees with them more often than not.

Additionally, McCain has in the past voted against gun control and anti-HMO measures along the lines of what he supports now. He has voted against spending and regulations championed by leading Democrats. He favored impeachment and voted to convict Bill Clinton in 1999. That position alone would cost him the Democratic nomination. In 1996, he joined with stalwart conservatives like Sen. Bob Smith to endorse Phil Gramm for president. Gramm initially was thought to be the right's alternative to front-runner Bob Dole. McCain is no Reagan conservative, but he isn't Jim Jeffords either.

If McCain wishes to run for president, pursuit of either major party's presidential nomination will certainly end in defeat. His only viable alternative is to run as an independent, as independents are his biggest supporters. McCain can hope to emulate the campaigns of John Anderson, another former conservative Republican who moved left, and Ross Perot - especially the latter, who won nearly one vote in every five cast in the 1992 presidential race. Perhaps he can even be as strong a candidate as his idol, Teddy Roosevelt, who ran ahead of President Taft in the 1912 presidential election.

McCain is less of a maverick than is advertised. On every issue that he has broken with the party line with the exception of tax cuts, he has left the conservative position to adopt the one more popular in public opinion polls. Even on taxes, the grounds he cited in voting against Bush's tax cut reflected popular concerns. Majorities, at least in terms of broad generalities, are sympathetic to the liberal stand on the environment, HMO regulation, gun control and campaign finance reform. On most issues where the liberal stances are less popular, McCain remains conservative. This maverick is not likely to come out against the death penalty or endorse federally funded needle exchange programs in the near future.

What we are seeing here with McCain's increasingly difficult relations with the dominant conservative wing of the Republican Party is driven by some pretty straightforward realities. McCain has found himself in the unpleasant position of being a formidable presidential candidate for the general election who could not possibly be nominated by a major party. His personal story and reputation resonate with the American people, yet he has taken positions that are unacceptable to his party's most committed members. This has similarly made him a national figure heralded by the media with no realistic prospect for a serious leadership position within his party. McCain is thrashing about in an attempt to deal with this situation and preserve for himself some measure of upward mobility.

Ambition aside, he has in effect alienated himself from his former allies and found himself drifting toward unexpected new friends. Even before he became more liberal on their policy issues, McCain's campaign finance reform bill severed his relations with conservative activists ranging from the Christian Coalition to the National Rifle Association. Many of his friends and supporters feel that this was the real reason so many organizations on the right adamantly opposed him and exaggerated his deviation on more substantive issues. Secondly, while McCain won more than 5 million votes in GOP primaries and scored some important victories, such as in New Hampshire, those votes came heavily from independents and Democrats voting in Republican primaries. In almost every primary, Bush beat McCain among registered Republicans. In a few closed primaries after McCain suspended his campaign, he even trailed Alan Keyes.

McCain is simply moving in the direction of the people who support him and away from those who don't. This is where the threat of an independent presidential bid exists. McCain arguably could have done better in the 2000 presidential election than President Bush. He would have appealed to many soft Gore voters and drawn some of the non-ideological voters who supported Ralph Nader as a protest against the major parties, while keeping the Republican base. It is conceivable that McCain would have won the popular vote, won Florida convincingly enough to avoid the recounts that cast doubt on Bush's legitimacy, carried several states like Michigan that Bush lost and still held onto every state that ultimately did go Republican. This is something that does not escape McCain when he ponders the possibility that the GOP itself may be the biggest obstacle to him becoming president.

Of course, it is entirely possible that McCain would not have done any better than Bush. He would have been more likely to choose a pro-choice running mate and otherwise irritate the more conservative members of the party, which would have made Pat Buchanan's third-party candidacy more relevant. This could have increased Buchanan's support at the GOP's expense and even enabled him to recruit a more established running mate than Ezola Foster. McCain also may have been less popular in the Southern states that proved crucial to Bush's victory. Additionally, by drawing non-leftie votes from Nader, McCain might have reduced the Green Party ticket's support enough to make the consumer crusader seem like a less credible alternative for liberals. Thus, many of them might have voted for Gore instead.

In any event, John McCain wants to go places but it is not apparent he can get there within the GOP. So the best way for him to maximize his influence is to become a less reliable Republican and an ally of the Democrats. This makes him the swing vote that both Democratic leaders and the GOP White House have to coax to support their initiatives. As long as McCain remains in the Senate, this unconventional approach to becoming a leader in the upper chamber is occasionally annoying but certainly tolerable. If he decides he does want to become president, the independent route is the best way for him to do it and the most threatening for conservatives. Yet President Bush and the Republican leadership have ample opportunity to produce conditions that would make a McCain challenge appear superfluous and less likely.

If Republicans react to this speculation through deal-making and capitulation, they are making a grave error. The agenda of lower taxes and limited government should instead be pursued more aggressively. The prosperity generated by a low-tax, free-market economy would remove the appeal of any self-styled savior of the sensible center come 2004.

W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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