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Flashback: The Real John McCain

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By Patrick Ruffini

In preparation for a John McCain presidential run, I clipped out what is perhaps the seminal article on McCain’s transformation from a Goldwater conservative to a maverick quasi-Democrat during the 2000 campaign and the early Bush years. Jonathan Chait’s assessment of just how far McCain had gone to the left in the April 29, 2002 issue of The New Republic stood out even at the time. I Googled it a few years later, and saved the full text. It is no longer available on TNR’s website.

The piece is heavy on speculation of a McCain presidential run as a Democrat. That issue has been discussed in this campaign. But it also sets the context in which these rumors swirled, laying out factual reasons for why John McCain (D-AZ) made sense. McCain was the chief Republican enabler of the Democrat-led Senate not just on campaign finance, but on taxes, health care, CAFE standards, guns, global warming, and corporate governance. People who were not active in politics in the first year of the Bush presidency may wonder “Why all the fuss?” about McCain. This article is why.

McCain denies ever considering a party switch, but he certainly did allow his aides, including then-Democrats John Weaver and Marshall Wittmann, to flirt with the idea:

John Weaver hunches his angular frame over a Styrofoam cup of coffee in the basement cafeteria of the United States Senate and tries to explain what might seem-to an outsider-his peculiar political loyalties. Once a loyal Republican strategist who directed the presidential aspirations of ber-conservative Phil Gramm and helped plot John McCain’s maverick primary run in 2000, he has since reregistered as a Democrat and severed consulting ties to all Republicans except McCain, for whom he still serves as chief strategist. “I only work for Democrats now,” he tells me. Noticing that he has overlooked the party affiliation of his most prominent advisee, I helpfully add: “And John McCain.” Weaver shrugs his shoulders and grins, “Oh, right.”

On his transformation during the 2000 campaign:

Pretty soon McCain was veering off in directions nobody could have foreseen even a few months before, openly pointing out that Bush’s tax cut favored the rich and attacking influential religious conservatives like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “forces of evil.” As Marshall Wittmann, who advised McCain during the primary, puts it, “Ideologically, we all changed.”

Note: Wittmann was an ur-weblogger in 2001, blogging at “The Bull Moose,” which I read daily. A McCain independent run was a prominent hobbyhorse of his, and he was later hired back as McCain’s Senate communications director.

The prominent issues on which McCain sided with Democrats and against Republicans are as long as my arm, including a much-overlooked attack on Second Amendment rights:

The degree to which McCain has abandoned contemporary conservatism is reflected in the legislative program he has championed since Bush took office. Most notably, of course, he shepherded campaign finance reform-an effort that put him in close cooperation with Democrats in Congress. McCain also collaborated with liberal Democrats John Edwards and Ted Kennedy on a patients’ bill of rights; with Charles Schumer on more widespread sale of generic prescription drugs; with Ernest Hollings to put federal employees in charge of airport security-all of which set him against fierce business lobbying. And he teamed up with Evan Bayh to promote AmeriCorps, an effort Bush later co-opted with his own smaller AmeriCorps boost.

But perhaps most amazing has been McCain’s willingness to take stands even many Democrats are afraid of. He voted against Bush’s tax cut, the centerpiece of the new president’s agenda. Along with John Kerry, he sponsored legislation to raise automobile emissions standards, and he paired with Joe Lieberman to try to force Bush to reduce greenhouse gases in compliance with the Kyoto accord. Also with Lieberman, McCain has proposed forcing people who buy firearms at gun shows to undergo background checks-closing the “gun-show loophole”-even as most Democrats shy away from any form of gun control. He has infuriated the gambling industry by proposing to ban wagering on college sports. And along with Carl Levin, he has co-sponsored a bill to force companies that deduct executive stock options from their taxes to disclose the cost on their financial statements-another effort few Democrats have been willing to join.

It was no wonder that,

on high-profile issues, McCain’s legislative coalitions consist entirely, or almost entirely, of Democrats.

McCain likes to paint himself as the true economic conservative in the race. Here’s what he was saying on this just a few years ago, sounding more like Upton Sinclair than Ronald Reagan:

In the last year though his ideology has grown coherently progressive. “We have had regulatory agencies always to curb the abuses or potential abuses of the capitalist system,” he said earlier this year on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “This is not a totally laissez-faire country.”

And here is his dodgy, conflicted rhetoric on Life:

Moreover, it has gotten hard to discern to what degree McCain is actually anti-abortion at all. At one point during his primary run, he told a reporter that “certainly in the short term or even the long term I would not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade.” Another time, when asked what he would do if his daughter sought an abortion, McCain replied that he’d leave the final decision to her. In both instances, he restated his anti-abortion position after the ensuing uproar, but polls showed that voters believed he was pro-choice. In the last year McCain reversed himself and came out in favor of stem-cell research. So while it’s hard to figure out where he stands, the best guess is that he remains personally against abortion but neutral, or even opposed to, making it illegal.

None of this is entirely new. But since June of 2004 (when McCain did an about-face from his role as Kerry surrogate-in-chief against the Swiftvets, and decided to campaign actively for the President), he has done a surprisingly good job of cloaking his Senate record. For months, we have heard him talk about nothing except the war and earmarks. In this topsy-turvy campaign, it’s easy for Republicans to get caught up in the other candidates’ flaws and forget why they distrusted McCain.

This piece is a vivid reminder why, in living color. I’ve reposted it in full below so you can judge for yourself.

Read it before you vote.

UPDATE from Hugh: I have deleted the Chaitt article as I don’t see a reprint permission from TNR or Jonathan Chaitt. If we get the OK, I will be pleased to repost it.


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