For McCain, a 2d run, a shifting image

Presumptive GOP nominee Senator John McCain attended the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Friday. Presumptive GOP nominee Senator John McCain attended the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Friday. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / April 20, 2008

Senator John McCain commands one of the strongest brands in American politics: maverick Republican, reformer, willing to challenge the party hierarchy.

But that image, cemented during his failed first run for the White House eight years ago, has been scuffed on his way to becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. To woo the GOP's conservative base, McCain has repositioned himself to align with the party mainstream on some key issues and downplayed others that once defined his independence.

Along the way, McCain has made clear that despite a flair for the impolitic or unpredictable, he hews more closely to conservative Republican orthodoxy than his rebel reputation suggests.

McCain insists he has never budged from his lifelong belief in less government and less taxation. But whoever wins the Democratic nomination will surely argue that behind McCain's antipolitician label, he has always been cozy with the agents of the special interests he rails against.

The policy shifts are evident: He abandoned comprehensive immigration reform last year as it threatened to sink his candidacy and is supporting tax cuts for the wealthy he had criticized for years and twice voted against in the Senate. And he has all but ignored the signature issues that framed the 2000 portrait of a maverick: campaign finance reform and a crackdown on the tobacco industry.

Compared with his 2000 insurgency, a doomed high-wire act that was short of money, staff, research, and policy papers, the McCain campaign of 2008 also has come under fire for its reliance on elite Washington lobbyists - 66 by one recent tally - who work for or are helping his campaign. News stories in recent weeks have questioned McCain actions that benefited political supporters or clients of friendly lobbyists.

For weeks, the Democratic National Committee has been firing shots almost daily with selected snippets about McCain's record under the headline "McCain Myth Buster."

McCain's campaign is confident that critics cannot pigeonhole him or tarnish the brand.

"With a record in the Senate that is very clear, the Democrats really don't have much to go on, but you're right, there is a concerted effort, and it doesn't seem to be gaining any political traction," said Jeff Sadosky, a McCain campaign spokesman. "The American people know John McCain, and John McCain has throughout his career been working for the best interests of the American people."

In response to a USA Today story last month about the senator and 23 campaign aides who have lobbied for the telecommunications industry, which McCain's Senate committee oversees, a spokesperson said McCain "does not do favors for special interests or lobbyists. Period." Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton also have lobbyists associated with their campaigns.

Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said he has seen a change in his Republican friend during the campaign. "There's been a lot of backtracking that changes who he is and what you can expect from him," said Kerry, who in 2004 sounded out McCain on the possibility of being his running mate on a unity ticket. Kerry cited McCain's about-face on tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, his vote in February against a bill to ban the Central Intelligence Agency's use of torturous interrogation methods, and a decision to play to "the Jerry Falwell crowd."

A leading analyst says McCain's image belies a mainstream Republican core.

"He's got the maverick brand, but when you look closely at his career, you can reasonably question how much of a maverick he really is; he's pretty establishment," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "He's a maverick in temperament and how he approaches politics, but I don't think he's really a maverick on issues and policy."

"In 2000, he had a blank slate and wrote 'reformer' on it, but coming into this election he had become the establishment candidate to the point where he could turn his statement in 2000 that [the Rev.] Jerry Falwell was an agent of intolerance into a commencement address at [Falwell's] Liberty University" in 2006, Sabato said. "So he has reemerged this time with a new tablet reading 'Iraq' rather than reformer," he said.

In his current campaign, McCain describes the war against radical Islamic terrorists as a "transcendent issue." He used the same phrase in 2000 to describe campaign finance reform. On McCain's website, campaign finance reform gets a brief mention at the end of an issues section titled "Ethics Reform," which emphasizes his trademark pledge to veto to all earmarked appropriations, the pet pork-barrel projects of lawmakers. The section also cites McCain's long support for more regulation of lobbyists and establishment of an independent ethics office within Congress.

In response to a request for the elements of McCain's reform agenda, his campaign e-mailed the Globe a compilation of speeches laying out McCain policy positions, described as "reforming our energy policy," "reforming the agencies and departments of the federal government," "reforming our military/intelligence capabilities," "reforming our worker retraining programs," "the need for tax reform," and "the pressing need for Social Security reform."

Many feature bread-and-butter Republican-type initiatives that emphasize market forces and tax incentives. Some are thin on specifics. On Social Security, for example, McCain rules out raising taxes and favors partial privatization but does not detail how he would fix the program's long-term solvency problem.

Others are more detailed, like his plan to offer tax credits for individuals and families who purchase health insurance. And his "cap-and-trade" initiative, cosponsored with Senator Joseph Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions runs against the Republican grain.

McCain has always emphasized his basic conservatism as he simultaneously encouraged the notion that he is an independent-minded reformer.

But his high-profile - critics would say well-chosen - departures from the GOP fold on a handful of issues, many earlier in his career, have made it difficult to label McCain in the shorthand used by journalists.

A harshly critical new book, "Free Ride: John McCain and the Media," by David Brock and Paul Waldman of the liberal Media Matters watchdog group argues that McCain's straight-talker/maverick/reformer image is largely the product of the repetition of those characterizations by journalists beguiled by his war hero background, attentiveness to the media, irreverence, and unpredictability.

The efforts to debunk the McCain shibboleths are not all partisan. In a book called "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick," released last fall, author Matt Welch, who is also editor in chief of Reason, a magazine with a libertarian viewpoint, makes the case that McCain's reform ideas often evince an authoritarian streak that promotes increased government power at the expense of individual liberties.

"He's got some maverickness," Welch said in an interview. But Welch believes at McCain's political core is a desire to preserve public faith in the "historical exceptionalism" of the United States by using the power of government to fight corrupting influences. As examples, Welch cites McCain's advocacy for banning wagering on college sports and gambling via the Internet, and outlawing the mixed martial arts sport of extreme fighting as well as imposing mandatory federal drug testing of athletes.

Campaign finance reform fits into this category of activist government. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as McCain-Feingold, banned "soft money," the unlimited contributions by individuals, labor unions, and other groups to political parties. It also prohibited advocacy groups from mentioning names of candidates in advertising during the 60 days before an election, a provision that was anathema to many conservative organizations. The Supreme Court struck down the advertising restriction last year, citing free-speech grounds.

Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who cosponsored the House version of McCain-Feingold, said last week the issue of campaign finance reform "is just not on anybody's radar screen right now." Shays, the only Republican House member from New England and a big McCain supporter, said he sees no significant changes in candidate McCain this time around.

"He hasn't given in on any basic convictions," Shays said between campaign stops with McCain in Connecticut recently. "Maybe he's taken off the rough edges, but he's not acquiescing."

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