McCain Buries His Progressive Past

Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks at the Baltimore County Republicans Lincoln Day dinner in Halethorpe, Md. Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008.
This column was written by Jonathan Chait

A couple of years ago, as part of his campaign to reassure conservatives of his ideological reliability, John McCain sat for an interview with Stephen Moore, a Wall Street Journal editorial writer and fervent advocate of supply-side economics. In the course of the interview, McCain acknowledged that not all his positions were acceptable to the right, but he hinted that further rightward evolution might be possible. "His philosophy is best described as a work in progress," wrote Moore somewhat hopefully. As McCain put it, "I'm going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated."

I knew I had heard McCain say something like this before. I dug out an old interview I had conducted with him back in January 2000. At the time, he was just beginning to alienate the Republican establishment by contradicting its most cherished economic orthodoxies. McCain acknowledged that he was moving to the left, and I asked why this evolution was happening so late in his career. Sure enough, I found the same confession: "In the interest of full disclosure," he told me, "I didn't pay nearly the attention to those issues in the past. I was probably a 'supply-sider' based on the fact that I really didn't jump into the issue."

At the time, this was one of the most endearing things I had ever heard a politician say. He was candidly confessing his own failure, and he left me feeling that he was bound to move closer to my viewpoint as he studied the issue more carefully. But seeing McCain offer up almost the same line to Moore - and getting the same gratified reaction - was jolting.

The prevalent view of McCain is that he is a generally conservative figure with a few maverick stances and an unwavering authenticity. Nearly every liberal editorial board that has made a Republican endorsement has chosen McCain, and nearly all have offered variations on the same theme. "Voters may disagree with his policies, but few doubt his sincerity," editorialized The Boston Globe. "The Arizona senator's conservatism is, if not always to our liking, at least genuine," concluded the Los Angeles Times. This is the consensus: McCain's basically a right-winger, but at least you know where he stands.

Actually, this assessment gets McCain almost totally backward. He has diverged wildly and repeatedly from conservative orthodoxy, but he has also reinvented himself so completely that it has become nearly impossible to figure out what he really believes.

Political conversions are hardly new or scandalous. McCain's ideological transformation is unusual for two reasons: First, he has moved across the political spectrum not once - like Al Smith or Mitt Romney - but twice. And, second, he refuses to acknowledge his change.

McCain ran for his Senate seat as Barry Goldwater's ideological heir, and, with the exception of a couple maverick episodes - his crusades against Big Tobacco and for campaign finance reform - he fulfilled that pledge. But something dramatic changed during, and after, his 2000 presidential campaign.

Conservatives complain constantly of McCain's disloyalty, but the full extent of that disloyalty is not widely known. Even though it is in the public record, McCain's voting behavior during Bush's first term is almost never mentioned in the press anymore. Yet McCain's secret history is simply astonishing. It is no exaggeration to say that, during this crucial period, McCain was the most effective advocate of the Democratic agenda in Washington.

In health care, McCain co-sponsored, with John Edwards and Ted Kennedy, a patients' bill of rights. He joined Chuck Schumer to sponsor one bill allowing the re-importation of prescription drugs and another permitting wider sale of generic alternatives. All these measures were fiercely contested by the health care industry and, consequently, by Bush and the GOP leadership. On the environment, he sponsored with John Kerry a bill raising automobile fuel-efficiency standards and another bill with Joe Lieberman imposing a cap-and-trade regime on carbon emissions. He was also one of six Republicans to vote against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

McCain teamed with Carl Levin on bills closing down tax shelters, forbidding accounting firms from selling products to the firms they audited, and requiring businesses that gave out stock options as compensation to reveal the cost to their stockholders. These measures were bitterly opposed by big business and faced opposition not only from virtually the whole of the GOP but even from many Democrats as well.

McCain voted against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. He co-sponsored bills to close the gun-show loophole, expand AmeriCorps, and federalize airport security. All these things set him against nearly the entire Republican Party.

Republicans who fought the legislative battles of those days now regard the prospect that McCain could become their party's standard-bearer with incredulity. These figures are stumbling around in rage and disbelief, like Jimmy Stewart in "It's A Wonderful Life" discovering that his beloved hometown has been taken over by Henry Potter. Former Senate Republican Conference chairman Rick Santorum bitterly noted that "almost at every turn, on domestic policy, John McCain was not only against us, but leading the charge on the other side." Former House speaker Dennis Hastert - in what, by his somnolent Midwestern standards, counts as an angry tirade - complained that McCain usually "allied with Democrats."

And, indeed, by 2002 the Arizona senator had transformed himself beyond recognition. McCain was not exactly a conventional liberal. He still opposed abortion (though he could muster little passion on the subject). And he remained a hawk (though, at the time, many Democrats were hawks as well). Yet he was also more willing to fight the business lobby than were most moderate - and even many liberal - Democrats.

McCain was best described as a progressive - like Teddy Roosevelt, whom he cited constantly. McCain tended to see politics as a contest between the national interest and the selfishness of private agendas, and he favored a role for government in counterbalancing the excesses of organized wealth. In 2002, for instance, he was asked about the Bush administration's view, with regard to the Enron scandal, that "[t]he company had a duty to inform its shareholders and its employees about things that were going on inside the company. That's not a federal government responsibility." McCain thundered in response, "Well, Theodore Roosevelt would not agree with at least that rhetoric....We have had regulatory agencies always to curb the abuses or potential abuses of the capitalist system."

Even McCain's most putatively conservative stance, his opposition to pork-barrel spending, fell comfortably within the progressive tradition. Pork-barrel programs by definition are those requested by legislators rather than federal agencies. They do not have to justify their effectiveness and usually serve parochial, rather than national, interests. Opposition to pork is in keeping with the reformer's battle against the machine.

It hardly signals any general animus toward government. Pork, after all, represents just a sliver of the federal budget. True movement conservatives hope to scale back the federal government to something approximating its pre-New Deal size. They approve of fighting pork, but so do liberals. This is an issue that divides politicians from non-politicians, not left from right.

Roosevelt, as McCain knew full well, abandoned the GOP over what he regarded as its subservience to big business. McCain did not leave his party, but he came close. The Washington Post (at the time) and The Hill (again last year) reported that, in 2001, McCain met with Democratic leaders to ponder a party switch. McCain and his allies deny these accounts, which are obviously devastating to his current prospects, and reporters almost never mention it in their McCain coverage. They also rarely mention how, in 2004, John Kerry wooed him to join his ticket as vice president. The reported half-dozen conversations the two held on the topic are about a half-dozen more than would have been needed if McCain truly was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican.