Nowadays, any Republican running for president needs one liberal issue he can point to as proof that he is not the scary sort of conservative. In 2000, George Bush had education. For John McCain in the months ahead, that issue may well be the environment. His vow to tackle global warming has already won him acclaim from outlets like The New York Times editorial page. One of his top strategists, Steve Schmidt, was an architect of Arnold Schwarzenegger's green-themed 2006 reelection drive in California, when the governor traversed the state in a pea-colored bus with a Yosemite National Park vista painted on its side, unveiling solar-paneled schools and signing climate legislation. "Schmidt is a closet environmentalist," chuckles one veteran of that campaign. "He doesn't want people to know, because his clients"--including Dick Cheney--"have all been Republicans, but he's shrewd. He gets that this is an issue that ... resonates with the majority of voters."
It wouldn't be wholly outlandish for McCain to follow in Schwarzenegger's steps: After all, during the early Bush years, the Arizona senator did more than just about anyone to put climate change on Congress's radar. On the other hand, his lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters is a dismal 24 percent, and he's generally more likely to side with miners, developers, and loggers than the EPA. So, while it's possible a McCain presidency could offer a Nixon-to-China moment on global warming, it's also possible McCain could say all the right things on the campaign trail and disappoint environmentalists once in office. How green is John McCain, anyway?
Trying to explain McCain's wildly erratic record on environmental issues is a maddening task. "We never know where he's going to come from," says Debbie Sease, the legislative director of the Sierra Club. "As a general rule, on land and conservation issues ... he tends to be pretty good. But he's a doctrinaire conservative on the role of government in protecting people from pollution." In his early House years, McCain was mentored by Morris Udall, an Arizona Democrat and conservationist. Soon enough, McCain was championing legislation to limit flights over the Grand Canyon and, as a freshman senator in 1990, snarling at senior Republicans to back down on local water issues.
But, when he wasn't safeguarding Arizona scenery, McCain usually held the conservative line, voting to hollow out clean-water and health protections or to expand offshore drilling. He also famously agitated for the construction of a controversial telescope atop Arizona's Mount Graham--which meant the razing of a forest containing an endangered species of red squirrel. When a Forest Service supervisor wanted to halt work on a road into the area, McCain was livid, according to a later investigation, threatening that, "if he did not cooperate on this project, he would be the shortest tenured forest supervisor in the history of the Forest Service."
In 1995, the Gingrich revolution swept into Congress and quickly set about trying to undercut the EPA. Once again, McCain stood with conservatives. But, the following year, after Bob Dole was trounced in the general election and GOP pollster Frank Luntz warned that half of all Republicans didn't trust their party on green issues, McCain penned a New York Times op-ed headlined "Nature Is Not a Liberal Plot," lambasting his fellow Republicans for their anti-environmental zeal. According to Frank Riggs, a former Republican representative who advised the senator in his 2000 campaign, McCain wasn't fundamentally at odds with the GOP goal of rolling back laws it saw as infringing on private property, but he did see a p.r. problem. "A lot of us were saying it privately, but he was one of the few willing to voice it publicly," says Riggs. "The Republicans could not be seen as anti-environment." McCain's gambit worked: The press hailed him as a kinder, gentler Republican in 1999, even as he was promising to repeal a Clinton-era ban on new roads in protected forests and skipping key votes on fuel-efficiency, wildlife, and mining bills.
The big exception to this pattern came after McCain returned to the Senate in the summer of 2000, still smarting from his primary defeat at the hands of Karl Rove. At the time, the odds of Congress acting on climate change seemed negligible: The Senate had denounced the Kyoto Protocol in a 95–0 vote, and Bush would soon renege on a campaign pledge to regulate greenhouse gases. On the trail in New Hampshire, McCain had been assailed by questions about global warming and dogged by an activist in yellow galoshes and a cape nicknamed "Captain Climate." Once back in Washington, McCain held the first balanced climate hearings in years starring real scientists (rather than industry-funded hacks). And, in private, Joe Lieberman convinced him that the United States risked losing its leadership position in the world if it didn't act. So the two senators drafted the first economy-wide cap-and-trade bill for carbon emissions and wrenched arms until the GOP leadership let it go to the floor, where, in 2003, it got 43 votes--far more than anyone had expected. "It was transformative: We went from Kyoto going down ninety-five to zero, and conventional wisdom saying nothing could ever pass, to a place where we had forty-three votes for a cap-and-trade regime," says Tim Profeta, a former Lieberman aide who helped draft the bill. Thanks in part to McCain, the political tectonics have shifted to the point where, today, a cap-and-trade bill is seen as inevitable.
But, just as McCain was becoming a celebrity in green circles--he graced the cover of OnEarth magazine in 2004, under the headline "Meet Captain Planet"--he swerved yet again. When McCain re-introduced his climate bill in 2005, he larded it with hefty nuclear subsidies, a poison pill that scared off environmental groups and lost four Democratic supporters. (Not all enviros are flatly antinuclear, but most would rather not see it heavily subsidized at the expense of other forms of clean energy.)
It's not clear why McCain sabotaged his own bill. One ex-staffer suggests that he thought he could lure Republicans like Lindsey Graham and Sam Brownback with a nuclear carrot, but miscalculated. (It didn't hurt that South Carolina, where McCain's first White House bid had foundered, is a big nuclear state.) And it's true that McCain isn't known for his deft legislative touch--one Senate staffer told me that McCain "totally screwed up the floor strategy" for a fuel-economy bill he sponsored with John Kerry in 2002.
Yet it's hard to shake the feeling that McCain may have been more interested in using global warming to burnish his maverick reputation than in passing legislation. "[T]he day-in, day-out negotiations you normally see--those weren't taking place," says Steve Cochran of Environmental Defense. Indeed, just last year, McCain refused to endorse a similar cap-and-trade bill sponsored by Lieberman and Virginia Republican John Warner--which actually has a shot at passing this year--just because it doesn't mention nuclear power. It's an absurd quibble for someone who thinks global warming is a colossal problem (the nuclear industry hardly lacks for subsidies as is) but a fine pose for someone who wants to be seen flouting conventional wisdom.
Whatever the reason, McCain's meandering makes it hard to predict how, exactly, he would tackle global warming. The policy debate has moved far beyond his initial bill, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton now vowing to cut carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. They have also proposed to auction off pollution credits, rather than handing them out to companies for free, to avoid the market distortions that have plagued Europe's trading regime. McCain's economic guru, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, told me that McCain would "consult experts" on such questions, but "probably won't put out a specific bill that keeps up with these developments."
Holtz-Eakin suggests that McCain's approach would essentially be a conservative one. Unlike Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani--who insist that, in lieu of emission caps, Congress should just fund alternative-energy solutions-- McCain favors setting a cap on carbon and letting the market adjust on its own. He's generally disdainful of corporate handouts (save to the nuclear industry, that is)--a hostility that has bolstered many of his environmental positions over the years. Bob Witzeman, an Arizona conservationist who has canoed with McCain, recalls that, "whenever I'd bring up an environmental topic, like mining law or grazing, he'd become cautiously non-committal." But, Witzeman adds, on the subject of pork, McCain's eyes would widen--"it's his favorite topic." Indeed, one Senate staffer who has worked with McCain suggests that the senator's much-lauded opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge had as much to do with his contempt for Alaska Senator (and arch-porker) Ted Stevens as with any principled concern for nature. Likewise, when McCain helped filibuster the 2003 energy bill, he seemed to be as exercised about its earmarks for an energy-efficient Hooters restaurant in Louisiana as its irresponsible promotion of fossil fuels.
This mindset could, ironically, drive McCain into supporting a strong cap- and-trade regime that doesn't carve out loopholes for corporations. "McCain makes [business] nervous as hell," says Cochran, whose organization has helped corral corporate support for an emission cap. But a strict conservative approach to climate also has drawbacks. "You can't just put a cap-and-trade on smokestacks," says Terry Tamminen, a Schwarzenegger adviser who runs the New America Foundation's Climate Policy Center. "You have to deal with tailpipes, with buildings that are already out there--and with agriculture and forestry, and other components." Emission-curbing steps like boosting public transit, retrofitting homes, and encouraging more efficient land use often require proactive government efforts. Tax credits for renewable power are needed to nurture nascent wind and solar industries. These measures are just as critical as McCain's preferred nuclear fix (even building a staggering 200 new nuclear plants by mid-century would cut emissions by only a fraction of the amount necessary). Yet, twice in recent months, McCain has skipped votes on Democratic bills that would, respectively, shift tax breaks from oil to renewable energy and offer incentives to boost efficiency. Both failed by a single vote.
Of course, these details might matter less if a McCain presidency could persuade his own party to take the issue seriously. But even here the evidence is hazy. Yes, McCain got the usual green Northeastern Republicans to vote for his climate bill, but he couldn't pick off true conservative fence-sitters like Lamar Alexander or Norm Coleman. Nor is McCain a policy-oriented guy, which means he would rely heavily on his Republican advisers, many of whom will be skeptical of action on climate change. However uneven his record, it would be a real tragedy if the GOP changed McCain's position on the environment, rather than the other way around.
Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.