Over the Senate's August recess, John McCain returned to Arizona to quash a brewing conservative insurgency in his home state. The Arizona Republican Assembly, a grassroots right-wing group, had recently censured McCain for "ignoring the opinions of his constituents expressed in numerous polls and personal pleas." The anti-immigrant Minuteman vigilantes had rallied on the Arizona-Mexico border in protest of his progressive immigration policy. Discord gripped the state GOP leadership. So the man who in 2000 dubbed himself "Luke Skywalker fighting his way out of the Death Star" headed straight into enemy territory, organizing a town hall meeting with rank-and-file conservatives in the desert town of Mesa. "Many of those in the crowd Thursday wore stickers with a circle and a slash--the symbol for 'no'--across the words 'McCain 2008,'" the local East Valley Tribune reported.
But the senator they saw projected a far more conciliatory image than the trash-talking maverick portrayed in the national media. Before the event he had endorsed teaching "intelligent design" alongside evolution in public schools, and he had expressed support for a rigid state ban on gay marriage that denies government benefits to any unmarried couple. After brief opening remarks, McCain took questions for more than two hours, referring to Reagan as "my hero," invoking the support of other conservatives on issues such as stem-cell research and immigration, and strenuously defending President Bush's Iraq policy.
The détente with conservatives that began with his vigorous embrace of Bush during the 2004 campaign has become a full-on charm offensive. "If he decides to run for President, the friendship has to be re-established," says McCain political consultant Max Fose. "There haven't always been town halls. There hasn't always been a dialogue." McCain isn't just reaching out on the home front. His office holds regular meetings with conservative leaders in South Carolina, where his approval rating sits at 65 percent. He has met with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom he denounced as one of the religious right's "peddlers of intolerance" after the 2000 South Carolina primary. After the antitax Club for Growth began running ads against McCain in New Hampshire, a state he won in 2000, he reversed positions and supported a procedural repeal of the estate tax. He has endorsed conservative Republican Ken Blackwell for Ohio governor. At the suggestion of conservative activist and longtime nemesis Grover Norquist, he campaigned for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's failed referendum initiatives in California, particularly the "paycheck protection" provision targeting unions' political activities. McCain's likely to be the most requested Republican campaigner in 2006 races. "He's the closest thing to a rock star in the Republican Party today," says Michigan Republican Party chair Saul Anuzis.
Unfortunately, most campaigns are a battle between who a politician is and who he needs to be to win. There have always been two sides to McCain: the conservative loyalist and the unpredictable maverick so often featured in the media. In preparation for 2008, McCain has largely chosen to unveil and market the conservative side. Many conservatives are warming to his routine; some are even beginning to like and trust him. It's fair to assume, though, that the more orthodox conservatives agree with McCain, the more he risks alienating moderates and forfeiting the independence that makes him unique and suggests he could become a great President. It's an uncomfortable predicament for a pragmatic problem solver with sky-high approval ratings and crossover appeal. "He'll have to decide whether he wants to be CBS's favorite senator or the Republican nominee," says Norquist. "He can't do both."
In late September, as Bush's presidency tailspinned, McCain headlined a dinner of conservative intellectuals sponsored by The American Spectator magazine. "Campaigning with George W. Bush was one of the proudest moments of my life," McCain declared. He downplayed his differences with Bush over immigration. (Both support a temporary-guest-worker program, but Bush wants illegals to return to their host countries after six years, while McCain advocates a "path to citizenship.") He railed against government spending and urged a hard line on Iran and North Korea. "McCain spoke fervently and with obvious sincerity about how much he admires Bush and the job he has been doing," wrote Michael Barone of US News & World Report.
"He thinks, not necessarily incorrectly, that he can pick off a few of us," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which rates conservative lawmakers. "It adds up to making him acceptable. He doesn't need 65 percent of the party to adore him, but he needs to defang their hostility." In this effort, McCain has been criticizing Republicans mostly from the right, shrewdly bolstering both his anti-establishment and conservative credentials--largely through appeals to what he calls "one of the bases of the Republican Party, a very important one, that believes in fiscal restraint and fiscal discipline." McCain has signed a "No Pork Pledge," fought against wasteful bridges in Alaska and urged deep cuts to nondefense and non-homeland-security-related spending--cuts that Democratic Senate minority leader Harry Reid dubs "immoral." At a recent appearance before the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, McCain described himself as a "Barry Goldwater Republican" who "revere[s] Ronald Reagan and his stand of limited government." The routine has won him praise from the likes of National Review editor Rich Lowry, who recently wrote: "For the first time in years, conservatives have listened to McCain talk about a high-profile domestic issue and have nodded their heads vigorously."
In fact, McCain has always been far more conservative than either his supporters or detractors acknowledge. In 2004 he earned a perfect 100 percent rating from Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and a 0 percent from NARAL. Citizens Against Government Waste dubs him a "taxpayer hero." He has opposed extension of the assault-weapons ban, federal hate crimes legislation and the International Criminal Court. He has supported school vouchers, a missile defense shield and private accounts for Social Security. Well before 9/11 McCain advocated a new Reagan Doctrine of "rogue-state rollback."
"He's a foreign policy hawk, a social conservative and a fiscal conservative who believes in tax cuts but not at the expense of the deficit," says Marshall Wittmann, a former McCain staffer and conservative activist who now works at the Democratic Leadership Council. McCain's ideology resembles an exotic cocktail of Teddy Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan--a conservative before conservatism was bankrupted by fundamentalism and corporatism. His centrist reputation simply proves how far right the center has shifted in Republican politics. "The median stance for Senate Republicans in the early 1970s was significantly to the left of current GOP maverick John McCain," write political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book Off-Center. "By the early 2000s, however, the median Senate Republican was essentially twice as conservative--just shy of the ultraconservative position of Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania."
Much of the moderates' love affair with McCain, and much of the conservatives' distrust of him, stems from 2000, when The Weekly Standard dubbed his reformist campaign an "insurrection." After the religious right smeared him during the South Carolina primary, McCain condemned Bush as "a Pat Robertson Republican" in Robertson's hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Following Bush's election, McCain continued to stump relentlessly for campaign-finance reform, opposed Bush's tax cuts, became the Democrats' favorite co-sponsor on issues like global warming and a patients' bill of rights and fought government corruption harder than anyone in Congress. By 2004 he was flirting with the idea of becoming John Kerry's running mate.
The turning point came when McCain not only endorsed Bush for re-election but made more than twenty campaign appearances with the President and defended his Iraq policy at the Republican National Convention. Relationships with the Bush team have thawed considerably; when McCain now bucks the White House on, say, uniform Army restrictions on torture, it isn't viewed as a personal betrayal. McCain campaigned with Bush on his push for Social Security privatization last spring. And after leading a gang of fourteen senators who brokered a compromise on judicial nominees and the filibuster, McCain strongly supported all three of Bush's Supreme Court picks. Asked recently by Fox News how he gets along with the White House, McCain responded, "Very well. Very well."
"Do I want to be President? Sure," McCain told the Wall Street Journal in October. "Do I want to run for President? That's the question." Yet it's one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington that McCain is running, so long as his health holds up (he'll be 72 in August 2008, and he bears a deep scar along his swollen left cheek from melanoma treatments). The obvious question then becomes, Can he win?
McCain's staff and supporters believe he can reach "mainstream conservatives"--who value low taxes, less government and an assertive foreign policy more than social concerns--without alienating the middle. Another key, says Greg Stevens, McCain's media adviser from 2000, will be electability. According to one recent national poll, McCain runs neck and neck with Rudy Giuliani and bests Hillary Clinton 52 percent to 39 percent. "The party is pretty heavy with Bush people right now, and they will want to win again," says Stevens. "Many are very interested in John because they think he's got the best chance." Bush's media adviser in 2000 and 2004, Mark McKinnon, has reportedly already signed on with the McCain campaign. McCain's aides even told The New Yorker last May that Bush brain Karl Rove might lend a helping hand. If electability doesn't work, there's always McCain's heroic life story--the Vietnam card. "He was in Hanoi for five years, two spent hanging from one arm," says Stevens. "I'm happy to run that footage." Of course, an overreliance on war-hero machismo could backfire--just ask Kerry.
Even with such a mainstream conservative message, who makes up McCain's base? "It's not the far right but conservative, practical thinkers in the Republican Party," says Fose. And how many of those currently exist? "Enough," he chuckles.
But right-wing Republicans like Norquist still hold McCain's occasional moderation and rebel style in deep suspicion. Many observers believe they will rally around a more ideologically pure candidate like Senator George Allen of Virginia or Sam Brownback of Kansas. "The politicized, active part of the Republican base has been stepped on by McCain," says Norquist, citing McCain's opposition to Bush's tax cuts as well as his support for greenhouse gas reductions and his pioneering of contemporary campaign-finance reform. "It'd be hard to imagine we'd be supporting Senator McCain," agrees former Congressman Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth.
Some of that criticism can be chalked up to McCain's testy relationship with parts of the GOP's Beltway establishment. Toomey's Club for Growth is being sued by the Federal Election Commission for violating a section of the campaign-finance laws that McCain wrote. Norquist is implicated in McCain's current investigation of how über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed milked millions in casino money from unsuspecting Indian tribes. But among social conservatives, McCain's standing is unquestionably precarious. Though he has always voted with the right on abortion, McCain opposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage (on states' rights grounds). He supports expanding federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and he helped preserve the filibuster by stalling the "nuclear option" for judicial nominees in the Senate.
Throughout his career, McCain has rarely talked about social issues or paid lip service to the religious right--prompting activists to question his devotion. "Some point to his record on pro-life issues and other questions and they say he really is acceptable," says evangelical leader Paul Weyrich, an influential founder of the modern conservative movement. "Others point to his reaction after the South Carolina primary and feel that underneath he is hostile." The bottom line? "I could not support him for President." Weyrich estimates that 60 percent of social conservative leaders feel the same way. "Social conservatives are the majority of the boots on the ground," says the Rev. Richard Land, a close Bush ally and director of the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention. "If fiscal conservatives and neocons and libertarians want to test that theory, they're in for an electoral debacle."
Recent history, however, isn't nearly that clear. Many religious-right leaders supported fringe candidates like John Ashcroft, Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes before rallying around Bush in 2000. McCain even won the endorsement of evangelical leader Gary Bauer after he promised to appoint only antiabortion judges. "I admire the religious right for the dedication and zeal they put into the political process," McCain told Larry King recently. If he's not making an outright play for the social conservative vote, McCain is certainly trying to blunt their dislike of him--hence his recent positions on intelligent design and gay marriage in Arizona, and his sit-down with Falwell. "McCain doesn't need to get majority support of the social conservatives, just a portion," says John Pitney, a government expert at Claremont McKenna College. "Bush 41 was not a favorite of social conservatives in 1988, but he had enough support to get through."
Over the next year, we're bound to see both sides of McCain. He'll continue to push for noteworthy reforms in the Senate--on torture, lobbying, defense procurement, immigration and other issues--while quietly and not-so-quietly courting elements of the conservative base. Right now, he's offering Republican activists a firm handshake. If it ever becomes a bear hug, akin to his embrace of Bush on the campaign trail in 2004, the John McCain of '08 may look quite different to moderates and independents from the John McCain they think they know now. If the heir to Barry Goldwater emerges as the new face of conservatism, it'll be clear that even straight talkers know how to spin.
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation, based in Washington, DC, and a Nation Institute Puffin Foundation writing fellow.
© 2005 The Nation