You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Maverick vs. Iceman

The cold calculations of the Straight Talker.

A couple of years ago, as part of his campaign to reassure conservatives of his ideological reliability, John McCain sat for an interview with Stephen Moore, a Wall Street Journal editorial writer and fervent advocate of supply-side economics. In the course of the interview, McCain acknowledged that not all his positions were acceptable to the right, but he hinted that further rightward evolution might be possible. "His philosophy is best described as a work in progress," wrote Moore somewhat hopefully. As McCain put it, "I'm going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated."

I knew I had heard McCain say something like this before. I dug out an old interview I had conducted with him back in January 2000. At the time, he was just beginning to alienate the Republican establishment by contradicting its most cherished economic orthodoxies. McCain acknowledged that he was moving to the left, and I asked why this evolution was happening so late in his career. Sure enough, I found the same confession: "In the interest of full disclosure," he told me, "I didn't pay nearly the attention to those issues in the past. I was probably a 'supply-sider' based on the fact that I really didn't jump into the issue."

At the time, this was one of the most endearing things I had ever heard a politician say. He was candidly confessing his own failure, and he left me feeling that he was bound to move closer to my viewpoint as he studied the issue more carefully. But seeing McCain offer up almost the same line to Moore--and getting the same gratified reaction--was jolting.

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.

Political conversions are hardly new or scandalous. McCain's ideological transformation is unusual for two reasons:First, he has moved across the political spectrum not once--like Al Smith or Mitt Romney-- but twice. And, second, he refuses to acknowledge his change.

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.

Conservatives complain constantly of McCain's disloyalty, but the full extent of that disloyalty is not widely known.Even though it is in the public record, McCain's voting behavior during Bush's first term is almost never mentioned in the press anymore. Yet McCain's secret history is simply astonishing. It is no exaggeration to say that, during this crucial period, McCain was the most effective advocate of the Democratic agenda in Washington.

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 reimportation of prescription drugs and another permitting wider sale of generic alternatives. All these measures were fiercely contested by the health care industry and, consequently, by Bush and the GOP leadership. On the environment, he sponsored with John Kerry a bill raising automobile fuel-efficiency standards and another bill with Joe Lieberman imposing a cap-and-trade regime on carbon emissions. He was also one of six Republicans to vote against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

McCain teamed with Carl Levin on bills closing down tax shelters, forbidding accounting firms from selling products to the firms they audited, and requiring businesses that gave out stock options as compensation to reveal the cost to their stockholders. These measures were bitterly opposed by big business and faced opposition not only from virtually the whole of the GOP but even from many Democrats as well.

McCain voted against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. He co-sponsored bills to close the gun-show loophole, expand AmeriCorps, and federalize airport security. All these things set him against nearly the entire Republican Party.

Republicans who fought the legislative battles of those days now regard the prospect that McCain could become their party's standard-bearer with incredulity. These figures are stumbling around in rage and disbelief, like Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life discovering that his beloved hometown has been taken over by Henry Potter. Former Senate Republican Conference chairman Rick Santorum bitterly noted that "almost at every turn, on domestic policy, John McCain was not only against us, but leading the charge on the other side." Former House speaker Dennis Hastert--in what, by his somnolent Midwestern standards, counts as an angry tirade--complained that McCain usually "allied with Democrats."

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.

McCain was best described as a progressive--like Teddy Roosevelt, whom he cited constantly. McCain tended to see politics as a contest between the national interest and the selfishness of private agendas, and he favored a role for government in counterbalancing the excesses of organized wealth. In 2002, for instance, he was asked about the Bush administration's view, with regard to the Enron scandal, that "[t]he company had a duty to inform its shareholders and its employees about things that were going on inside the company. That's not a federal government responsibility." McCain thundered in response, "Well, Theodore Roosevelt would not agree with at least that rhetoric.… We have had regulatory agencies always to curb the abuses or potential abuses of the capitalist system."

Even McCain's most putatively conservative stance, his opposition to pork-barrel spending, fell comfortably within the progressive tradition. Pork-barrel programs by definition are those requested by legislators rather than federal agencies. They do not have to justify their effectiveness and usually serve parochial, rather than national, interests.Opposition to pork is in keeping with the reformer's battle against the machine. It hardly signals any general animus toward government. Pork, after all, represents just a sliver of the federal budget. True movement conservatives hope to scale back the federal government to something approximating its pre-New Deal size. They approve of fighting pork, but so do liberals. This is an issue that divides politicians from non-politicians, not left from right.

Roosevelt, as McCain knew full well, abandoned the GOP over what he regarded as its subservience to big business.McCain did not leave his party, but he came close. The Washington Post (at the time) and The Hill (again last year) reported that, in 2001, McCain met with Democratic leaders to ponder a party switch. McCain and his allies deny these accounts, which are obviously devastating to his current prospects, and reporters almost never mention it in their McCain coverage. They also rarely mention how, in 2004, John Kerry wooed him to join his ticket as vice president. The reported half-dozen conversations the two held on the topic are about a half-dozen more than would have been needed if McCain truly was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican.

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 reingratiating 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.)

More recently, McCain has begun to insist that he only opposed Bush's tax cuts because they were not accompanied by spending cuts. Unfortunately, this explanation makes even less sense than the others. Bush enacted his first tax cut during a time of surplus--nobody was contemplating a spending cut. And, if the absence of corresponding spending cuts was McCain's reason to oppose the tax cuts, why would he later support those tax cuts given that the spending cuts never happened?

Anyway, at the time he opposed Bush's tax cut, McCain did not say anything about wanting spending cuts to go with it. What he said was, as he put it in one typical comment, "I won't take every last dime of the surplus and spend it on tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy." Well, the surplus is long gone, and income inequality has continued to skyrocket (helped along by Bush's tax policies), but McCain says he wants to keep those tax cuts while insisting he hasn't changed his mind.

McCain's most successful gambit has been to tell conservatives that he is submitting himself to the tutelage of Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm. The odd thing is that Kemp and Gramm, while both fervent and longstanding economic conservatives, inhabit opposite poles of right-wing fiscal thought. Kemp is a utopian supply-sider, so utterly convinced that tax cuts cause revenues to rise that he ceaselessly evangelizes to liberals, blacks, and the poor, whom he sees as the GOP's natural constituency. Gramm, on the other hand, is a pitiless spending hawk whose animus toward social programs is so strident that it often bleeds over onto the recipients themselves. (He once suggested that poor people are all fat, and another time advised an elderly widow concerned about Medicare cuts to find a new husband to support her.)

The purpose of bringing in Kemp and Gramm together was no doubt to reassure conservatives that McCain is reliable on, respectively, taxes and spending. But the incongruent combination--at times, McCain declares that tax cuts always cause revenues to rise; at others, he insists spending cuts are needed to reinvigorate the economy--has given McCain's new economic worldview an ungainly, stitched-together feel. 

McCain also availed himself of more subtle techniques. The easiest trick was simply to change his emphasis. For years, McCain had kept his distance from the president; but, starting in the summer of 2004, he began to praise Bush effusively. McCain stopped teaming up with Democrats to sponsor legislation detested by Republicans and K Street.And he began to emphasize his support for the Iraq war, one of his few points of unblemished agreement with the Republican right.

The fact that the war was increasingly unpopular with the public at large, paradoxically, made it all the more effective for McCain. His hawkish stance signaled to conservatives his willingness to buck public opinion. And reporters, bizarrely, interpreted his position as more evidence of McCain's probity--here was a man, gushed a string of campaign reports, willing to lose the presidency for the sake of his beliefs. In fact, the war was an issue where McCain's beliefs aligned perfectly with his self-interest, since the constituency he needed to woo, conservative stalwarts, supported Bush.

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.

Determining how McCain would act as president has thus become a highly sophisticated exercise in figuring out whom he's misleading and why. Nearly everyone can find something to like in McCain. Liberals can admire his progressive instincts and hope that he is dishonestly pandering to the right in order to get through the primary.Conservatives can believe he will follow whatever course his conservative advisers set out for him and will feel bound by whatever promises he has made to them. Even the ideological tendency McCain is most strongly identified with--neoconservative foreign policy--is, as John B. Judis explained in The New Republic, a relatively recent development:McCain originally opposed intervention in Bosnia and worried about a bloody ground campaign before the first Gulf war (see "Neo-McCain," October 16, 2006). McCain's advisers include not only neoconservatives but also the likes of Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft. It would hardly be unimaginable for McCain to revert to his old realism, especially if Iraq continues to fail at political reconciliation. He could easily be the president who ends the war.

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?

This article originally ran in the February 27, 2008, issue of the magazine.