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maverick vs. iceman February 11, 2008

Posted by KG in 2008 Elections, politics.
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photo by flickr user pingnews.com used under a creative commons license

jonathan chait with a great article on mccain:

The prevalent view of McCain is that he is a generally conservative figure with a few maverick stances and an unwavering authenticity. Nearly every liberal editorial board that has made a Republican endorsement has chosen McCain, and nearly all have offered variations on the same theme. “Voters may disagree with his policies, but few doubt his sincerity,” editorialized The Boston Globe. “The Arizona senator’s conservatism is, if not always to our liking, at least genuine,” concluded the Los Angeles Times. This is the consensus: McCain’s basically a right-winger, but at least you know where he stands.

Actually, this assessment gets McCain almost totally backward. He has diverged wildly and repeatedly from conservative orthodoxy, but he has also reinvented himself so completely that it has become nearly impossible to figure out what he really believes.

McCain ran for his Senate seat as Barry Goldwater’s ideological heir, and, with the exception of a couple maverick episodes–his crusades against Big Tobacco and for campaign finance reform–he fulfilled that pledge. But something dramatic changed during, and after, his 2000 presidential campaign.

In health care, McCain co-sponsored, with John Edwards and Ted Kennedy, a patients’ bill of rights. He joined Chuck Schumer to sponsor one bill allowing the re-importation of prescription drugs and another permitting wider sale of generic alternatives….

And, indeed, by 2002 the Arizona senator had transformed himself beyond recognition. McCain was not exactly a conventional liberal. He still opposed abortion (though he could muster little passion on the subject). And he remained a hawk (though, at the time, many Democrats were hawks as well). Yet he was also more willing to fight the business lobby than were most moderate–and even many liberal–Democrats.

After the Kerry flirtation ended, McCain obviously decided that his only plausible path to the presidency lay with the Republican Party in 2008. So he set about re-ingratiating himself with the GOP establishment while maintaining his reputation as an unwavering man of principle.

McCain’s overriding priority was to make himself acceptable to the right on taxes. Republican voters may not always care very much about taxes (in 2000, polls showed that a majority of Republicans agreed with McCain that paying down the national debt ranked as a higher priority than tax cuts), but Republican elites care about taxes more than anything else. McCain would never be able to make himself the chosen candidate of the economic right–no amount of penance could wipe away his prior heresies–yet he could at least blunt the opposition of the GOP’s money wing.

McCain’s first step toward redemption came in 2005, when he stopped blocking repeal of the estate tax. For years, conservatives had been seeking to secure a permanent repeal of the tax but fell just shy of securing the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic-led filibuster. In September of that year, McCain told columnist (and fervent supply-sider) Robert Novak that he would oppose future filibusters. McCain insisted he would still vote against repeal if the filibuster was defeated. (“I follow the course of a great Republican, Teddy Roosevelt,” he declared, “who talked about the malefactors of great wealth and gave us the estate tax.”) Of course, since Republicans already had well more than the 50 votes needed for straightforward passage, this rendered McCain’s support for the estate tax utterly inconsequential.

Then, McCain assured conservatives that he would support making permanent the Bush tax cuts, which would otherwise expire during the next president’s first term. This was a tricky dance for a straight-talker, given that he had voted against those very tax cuts. McCain explained that his position was perfectly consistent because, while he may have opposed the tax cuts in the first place, letting them expire would amount to a tax hike; and, he said, “I’ve never voted for a tax increase in twenty-four years . . . and I will never vote for a tax increase, nor support a tax increase.” In fact, McCain had proposed a tobacco tax increase in 1998. Nor would his position have made sense anyway. (Some economists favor higher tax rates and others prefer lower tax rates, but none would oppose a tax cut and then oppose its repeal simply because it had already been enacted.)

McCain’s emphasis on the war brought another benefit: Since reporters saw his campaign almost entirely through the lens of Iraq, they usually overlooked the fact that he was flip-flopping on other topics quite a bit. For instance, McCain had for years supported the Law of the Sea Treaty, an object of right-wing, anti-internationalist ire. But, on a conference call with conservative bloggers last fall, he assured his audience, “I would probably vote against it in its present form.”

In 2005, McCain co-sponsored Bush’s immigration bill. At the time, few voters were paying much attention to the bill, and McCain’s support seemed like a cost-free way to win favor with the administration and pro-immigration business lobbyists. As conservative grassroots opposition exploded, McCain was forced to announce that he “got the message” and would not press the issue any further. At a recent debate, he said that, if his own immigration bill passed Congress, he would not sign it. This formulation offered the perfect straddle for McCain. He could signal to the press that he favored immigration while still promising conservatives he would side with them.

The amazing thing about McCain is that his reputation for principled consistency has remained completely intact. It is his strongest cudgel against opponents. Wall Street Journal editorial page columnist Kimberley Strassel recently gushed that McCain is “no flip-flopper.” “Like or dislike Mr. McCain’s views,” she added, “Americans know what they are.” Then, in the very next paragraph, she wrote that McCain will now be “as pure as the New Hampshire snow on the two core issues of taxes and judges” and that “[t]he key difference between Mr. McCain in 2000 and 2008 is that he…appears intent on making amends” to conservatives.

It is a truly impressive skill McCain has–the ability to adopt new beliefs and convince his new allies that his conversion is genuine (or, at least, irreversible) while simultaneously strengthening their belief in the immutability of his principles. I suspect that, in the end, it will come to tears for McCain’s new allies–just as it has for most of those, including me, who thought they had a bead on him in the past. But, really, who knows?

 

 

 

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