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How Conservative Is McCain?

Plenty conservative. He isn't the Clinton clone Bush makes him out to be--or the muckraker he likes to play on the stump

cover image

By Eric Pooley

February 7, 2000
Web posted at: 12:54 p.m. EST (1754 GMT)

The votes were still being tallied last Tuesday night when George W. Bush launched his counterattack against John McCain. "He came at me from the left here in New Hampshire," Bush told CNN's Larry King, "and so it's going to be a clear race between a more moderate-to-liberal candidate vs. a conservative candidate in the state of South Carolina." Bush wants to convince Carolina Republicans that he is the only conservative in the race--that McCain is a closet Clinton who won in New Hampshire because the state has become a hilly suburb of Boston, Taxachusetts. That's a tough sell, since McCain has always been a staunch conservative--pro-life, pro-gun, antitax, antiregulation. But Bush argues that McCain's advocacy of campaign-finance reform and his opposition to whopping tax cuts mean he has abandoned his ideals. The argument is designed to shore up Bush's right-wing support in South Carolina, but it wasn't working so well last week, as McCain inched past Bush in the TIME/CNN poll. Yet Bush and his surrogates aren't the only ones wondering whether McCain has morphed into some strange new breed of politician. The New Republic recently put McCain on its cover next to the headline, THIS MAN IS NOT A REPUBLICAN.

The basic argument goes like this: McCain's campaign-finance rebellion--and the force of the Republican reaction against him--was a seismic shock that knocked him free from G.O.P. orthodoxy. And so he attacks Republican pork-barrel projects, questions the need for increased military spending, worries about the gap between rich and poor, and supports new health-care entitlements (insurance for children, a prescription-drug benefit) and even, in the vaguest of terms, universal health care. McCain has also been butting heads with Bush on the question of tax cuts--arguing that the truly conservative position is to keep the tax cut modest and use the surplus to save Social Security and pay down the debt. Bush calls that a Clintonian approach--on Friday in South Carolina he began airing TV spots saying as much--but according to the new Time/cnn poll, nearly three-quarters of likely G.O.P. primary voters in the state agree with McCain. Does that make him a conservative apostate or a new kind of conservative?

Neither. McCain is an old kind of Republican--to be precise, he is several old kinds of Republican rolled into one. He grabs various strands of Republicanism and doesn't worry when they contradict. He's a self-styled populist and a free-trading internationalist, a noisy reformer who keeps his hands off business and has corporate lobbyists raising money for him. He picks an assortment of G.O.P. role models and invites them to rumble inside his head.

Barry Goldwater is one. The Arizona Senator and McCain mentor (McCain succeeded him in office) founded the modern conservative movement, ran for President and lost, said just about anything that came into his mind (a clear influence right there) and, in his later years, tempered his social conservatism in ways McCain might be starting to now. Goldwater was a voice for fiscal prudence. When Ronald Reagan ran up a $1.3 trillion deficit during the 1980s, Goldwater lambasted him, demanding the sort of debt reduction that McCain argues for today.

Reagan is another hero. McCain voted for the Reagan budgets to which Goldwater objected, and today he calls himself "a proud conservative in the tradition of Ronald Reagan and my favorite, Theodore Roosevelt." But Reagan and Roosevelt represent very different traditions. Reagan passed tax cuts for the rich (McCain voted for them); Roosevelt called for a social safety net and graduated income tax to shrink the gap between rich and poor. And that sounds like McCain lately. "I'm not giving tax cuts for the rich," he says. Roosevelt's progressive-era reforms helped create government regulations; Reagan wanted to ease them. McCain again takes from both, and has not figured out how to reconcile the two competing impulses. He wants to fix education and improve health care without new federal programs, so he ends up with half-baked policies and fuzzy talk about block grants--the kind of thing Reagan and Roosevelt might both somehow approve of.

Is that clear? Of course it isn't, because McCain isn't clear on these matters, even in his own mind. The problem with trying to define McCain's Republicanism is that McCain is winging it much of the time, making it up as he goes along. Some of his thinking seems to have evolved out of discussions no more formal than the rolling press conferences on his Straight Talk Express. He likes to admit what he doesn't know--a risky kind of candor for a candidate who wants to be taken seriously--and he's sometimes ready to scrap a policy on the spot. When Jonathan Chait of the New Republic questioned his commitment to the dispossessed--pointing out that McCain's tax-cut plan does nothing for low-income people--McCain said, "Maybe I'm not paying attention to the poorest of America. Maybe my priorities are not correct. I selected this course not thinking that it's perfect but thinking that it's the best that I could come up with."

On foreign affairs and the military, McCain is an acknowledged expert, and his chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee has taught him about the mysteries of the information economy. But on most other issues, he's paper thin; he can give you a position but not its underpinnings. He puts his faith in experts and asks voters to as well. "We need to get the smartest minds together to help work this out," he says about too many issues: William Bennett on drug policy, Lindsey Graham on health care, John Breaux on Medicare. Out of all the domestic issues that cut with voters, his campaign has offered detailed proposals only on Social Security reform, taxes and health care, and that plan was held together with Post-it notes and glue sticks. He has got away with all this because his campaign isn't about his policies; it's about his character and personality. That's why people who disagree with him say they will vote for him anyway, and why his supporters tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. They trust him, so they trust that he will come up with a plan.

Reporters fall into the same trap. In his genial conversations with the press, McCain often seems a good deal more moderate than he actually is. He muses about helping the have-nots, but his policies tend to help the have-a-lots. He speaks of universal health care but offers no plan to get anywhere close. And reporters give him leeway because his reputation as a crusader for reform--someone who wants to "kick the big-money boys out of Washington"--is so disarming.

But there's less reform than meets the eye. As McCain's campaign-finance-reform bill stalled in Congress last year, he stripped the bill of key provisions--the bans on foreign money and phony "issues" ads--in an attempt to win votes. Some of his colleagues wondered if he was more interested in holding a victory press conference than passing meaningful reform.

Bush went after McCain's reform credentials last week, pointing out that as Commerce chairman, McCain has been willing to milk the system he rails against. "The portrait McCain likes is the one of the plain-talking crusader who's bucking the system," writes Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity in his book The Buying of the President 2000. "The one many others see is that of a politician who rarely breaks ranks with the special interests that finance his campaign." Many of McCain's top fund raisers and advisers--Kenneth Duberstein, Vin Weber--are lobbyists who do business with his committee. And as the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, McCain is more apt to rail against corporate malfeasance than to sponsor legislation to rein it in. It's the reverse of Teddy Roosevelt's dictum--McCain speaks loudly and carries no stick. He hammered airlines for providing lousy service, then tabled his passengers'-rights bill when they promised to do better. He bashed cable-TV operators for raising rates, but didn't write a bill forcing them to open their networks to competition. (Telecommunications giants such as AT&T and Time Warner, which owns TIME, have been among his big contributors.) "If we can get people to act in a meaningful, progressive fashion," he says on the stump, "we don't need legislation."

McCain's record makes the Bush strategy of calling him a Clinton clone seem foolish. In the Senate, McCain has been a rock-solid vote on just about every core G.O.P. issue, winning high ratings from the Christian Coalition and other conservative groups. He supported every item in Newt Gingrich's Contract with America and voted to convict Bill Clinton on every article of impeachment. And his environmental record would make Teddy Roosevelt cringe. McCain has voted many times to cut funding for toxic-waste cleanups, he has supported subsidies for mining on public lands, and he favors reopening national forest lands to logging. (In 1998 the League of Conservation Voters gave him a zero rating.) He is a longtime friend of the National Rifle Association's, voting against the Brady Bill in 1993 and the assault-weapons ban in 1994. He's against the licensing and registration of handguns. He has repeatedly voted against minimum-wage increases and equal pay for women, and labor considers him a reliable anti-union vote.

Bush allies in South Carolina have been running TV spots questioning McCain's commitment to the pro-life cause. Yet he took the pro-life position 82 times out of 86 votes cast in the Senate. The only area in which he has arguably strayed is one that has bedeviled many a pro-life advocate: fetal-tissue research. In 1992 the Senate considered a bill to overturn a moratorium on medical research using fetal tissue from elective abortions, and McCain--along with many other pro-life Senators--voted to lift the ban. He had been moved to do so by watching his friend Morris Udall, Arizona's Democratic Congressman, lose his battle against Parkinson's disease; fetal-tissue research held out hope for a cure.

Years before, Udall had been McCain's first tutor, showing the freshman Congressman the power of bipartisanship and the importance of taking on unpopular causes. Udall fired McCain's interest in American Indian issues, for example, something Republicans rarely bother with. Because McCain's politics are always personal, he backed fetal-tissue research as a tribute to Mo. Yet last week McCain claimed that he never voted to allow research on tissue from aborted fetuses. His record does not support the claim--he voted to allow such research in 1992, 1993 and 1997. Asked about the discrepancy, McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky told TIME that "science has progressed beyond this question. We should explore options that are not abortion dependent." Does that mean McCain would vote differently today? "That would depend on the legislation," says Opinsky. That's not straight talk, and Bush surrogates are already going after McCain on it.

But Bush believes his bread and butter is the tax issue. The Texas Governor is running on a $483 billion tax-cut plan that would reduce marginal rates across the board. McCain's would be less than half that size; he would use the bulk of the surplus to save Social Security and Medicare. "I think it's conservative to pay down the debt and save Social Security and not put it all into tax cuts," he says. "I think it's conservative to want to get rid of the special interests. And I don't think that anybody can paint me as being anything but a proud conservative."

The tax issue is important because Bush and McCain aren't merely fighting for the Republican Party's nomination. They are fighting for the Republican Party's soul--clarifying what the G.O.P. stands for in 2000. Bush is playing by supply-side Republican rules that have been in retreat throughout the 1990s; McCain believes he is on to something new. During his 114 New Hampshire town meetings, he says, he noticed something: "No one stood up and said, 'We need a $700 billion tax cut.'" Even the Republican Congress seems to be getting the message. After seeing Clinton veto the G.O.P.'s whopping tax-cut bill last year (McCain argued against it but ended up voting for it), Congress is now talking about a far more modest cut--one that resembles McCain's more than Bush's. But Bush is undeterred. He thinks Republicans will vote for his tax cut even if they tell pollsters they don't care about it.

And McCain thinks Republicans will vote for him even if his policies are gooey and incomplete. His aides have been carefully tightening up the reporters' rules of engagement on the Straight Talk Express. When they press the Senator for policy details, McCain says the conversation has got too "Talmudic" (sometimes he says "talmudian") and changes the subject. So far, it hasn't mattered. McCain has managed to make himself the embodiment of reform, of truth and courage and all the rest of it, and as long as voters believe that Big Picture, none of his contradictions and inconsistencies will make much difference.

McCain's Big Picture was on display last week during his New Hampshire victory speech. "They said there wasn't room for reform in the Republican Party," he crowed. "Well, we've made room." The next day in South Carolina, he said his campaign would attract not just "hard-core Republicans" but also "Reagan Democrats and independents--I think that's a sign of electability. I would like to preserve our Republican base and make [it] attractive to Democrats the same way Ronald Reagan did." That could be the most crucial lesson McCain learned from any of his heroes: become the living, breathing symbol of what voters want, and the fine points of the plan might not mean so much. --With reporting by John F. Dickerson and Viveca Novak/Washington


Cover Date: February 14, 2000

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