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April 9, 2006
McCain Shifting Gears

John McCain still garners the most media attention of all prospective Republican candidates for the presidential nomination in 2008. His long-cultivated relationship with the media and his reputation as a "maverick" has provided endless fascination and a large boost to his prospects for capturing the ticket. However, now that he has to come to terms with his party, McCain now risks the very assets that propelled him to the top of the media dance card. The New York Times profiles McCain in transition in its Sunday edition:

Senator John McCain began his week by embracing the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the conservative religious leader he once denounced as polarizing. He ended it by joining Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts icon, in a fight for an immigration bill opposed by many conservatives.

Mr. McCain has long sought to present himself as a singular sort of American politician — straight-talking, iconoclastic and hard to quantify. But as he began a campaign-style trip here that will take him through Florida, Ohio and Iowa, he faced an extraordinarily complex political challenge as he sought to reconcile his appeals to an unusually diverse audience and cement his early standing in the emerging Republican presidential field.

Mr. McCain's alliance with Mr. Kennedy comes as he has embarked on a campaign to repair strains with conservatives and a once-wary Bush White House. He is portraying himself as a lifelong conservative and a steadfast supporter of President Bush, once a political rival, courting his senior staff members and fund-raisers.

He has endorsed Bush tax cuts he once criticized as fiscally ruinous, and he agreed to appear at a commencement at Liberty University, headed by Mr. Falwell, whom Mr. McCain once called an agent of "intolerance."

But a strategy designed to muscle him through the 2008 Republican primaries — should he ultimately run, which aides says is likely but not definite — risks diluting the independent image that has been central to his political appeal. Already, Mr. McCain is facing stiff questions from supporters and critics about how far he will go to win support from conservative leaders who have long been wary of him.

McCain's problem is that he continues to try the same pattern he has since losing the primary in 2000 -- zig-zag through political positions in order to please the most people. What the Senator seems to have forgotten is that one cannot ever please everybody. Reaching out to Jerry Falwell demonstrates this problem; the move looks transparently political and self-serving to those who like Falwell, especially after McCain's earlier harsh remarks, and it alienates moderates who never liked Falwell from the beginning. It also shows a little tone-deafness, because while Falwell has some influence, it has ebbed dramatically since the 1980s.

The Times relates an incident on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where the host asked McCain if he was going into "crazy-base world" -- to which McCain said, "I'm afraid so." Hardly a ringing endorsement of the people McCain supposedly wants to embrace, and presumably expects to embrace him back.

George Will also writes about the McCain transformation in one of his better columns of late. Will chides the media for not recognizing McCain as a conservative all along, although to be fair most conservatives would have made the same mistake:

First Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, now John McCain and the media. Even torrid relationships are perishable. It was only a matter of time before the media turned on their pin-up, and that time has arrived. A rivulet, soon to be a river, of journalism is reporting -- as a mystery deciphered, even a scandal unearthed -- that McCain, who occupies the Senate seat once held by Barry Goldwater, is a conservative Republican.

He has been unmasked as a "pro-life, pro-family, fiscal conservative." Those words are his, and they are a reasonably accurate description of the man who voted against the prescription drug entitlement and the most recent transportation bill because of their costs.

Will reminds us that McCain caused this confusion himself, especially in his zeal to drive money out of politics. (I wrote extensively on the strange nature of McCain's Reform Institute, given this public position.) Not only did McCain push through the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which restricts political speech based on proximity to the election, but he explicitly voted to amend the Constitution in 2000 to restrict political speech. Fritz Hollings proposed the amendment because he saw the Constitutional conflict in McCain's attempt to limit speech, even though the Supreme Court could not. The amendment failed, but the BCRA became law.

Now McCain wants to repair his relationship with conservatives, but he appears to want to do so through superficial efforts like the Liberty University appearance that brought him a truce with Falwell. More substantially, he has also endorsed making the Bush tax cuts permanent, which in a sane world should be a slam dunk after three years of excellent economic growth. However, McCain still pulls the rug out from under conservatives, especially in the immigration compromise that collapsed this week. He teamed up with Ted Kennedy to promote an amnesty bill that completely ignored border security as an answer to the supposedly draconian House proposal that would have established some American credibillity on the Rio Grande. He then tried, at least at first, to keep Republican Senators from amending the bill in order to correct the deficiencies.

That's not the actions of a man who wants to represent the conservative base. That's the actions of a man who will do anything to get himself elected. It follows on his betrayal of the GOP base on judicial nominations and the restriction of political speech to supposedly clean up politics, an effort that has only led to even more corruption and even more restrictions on speech. Bloggers had to beg for the "privilege" of expressing their political opinions thanks to the BCRA and the continued effort by BCRA authors to press the FEC to regulate the Internet. None of these are conservative values, and the last isn't even a liberal value.

All of them remain very popular among the media, however, and they guaranteed McCain some serious coverage as the reasonable Republican. Now he risks losing that for his superficial outreach to past-prime conservative icons instead of actual support for the most important of conservative concerns. He'll have to do much better if he expects to convince anyone.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 9, 2006 5:16 PM

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