John McCain: Softening the Skeptics

John McCain: Softening the Skeptics
by David Nather
as seen at

It’s almost impossible to keep secrets in Washington, but this one held for more than a month. On Sept. 20, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who once commanded the stage of religious right politics as the founder of the Moral Majority, slipped into the Russell Senate Office Building for a private sit-down with John McCain, the man who had called him an “agent of intolerance” during the 2000 presidential campaign.

Falwell had proposed the meeting, both sides say, as a way to put their past differences behind them. Fine with me, McCain said. The two met face to face, with no staff present, in the Arizona senator’s office, a spacious room in the middle of a lengthy office suite, the desk sporting a figure of the man McCain succeeded in the Senate, conservative icon Barry Goldwater. Falwell never had to bring up McCain’s past remarks, he says. McCain brought them up himself.

“He put his hand out and said, ‘I said those words. I was emotional. It was the heat of the moment. I’m sorry,'” Falwell recalls. “I said, ‘No apology necessary, senator. Let’s move on.'” McCain remembers the moment this way: “I just said, ‘Look, a lot of things happened in the campaign that obviously, if I were a cooler head, I would probably not say, or at least the way that I said it.'”

That meeting led to an ongoing dialogue about his opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage — and eventually to their agreement that McCain, at Falwell’s invitation, would deliver the commencement address this week at Liberty University, the evangelical Baptist school Falwell founded in Lynchburg, Va., in 1971. When McCain’s decision was announced in March, the media pounced. Liberals who liked McCain, mostly because he puts the Bush administration on the spot, were furious. Was he cozying up to religious conservatives in a craven attempt to become the front-runner for the Republican nomination to succeed President Bush, the man who defeated him six years ago?

This is the box McCain finds himself in as the political community, including journalists, scrutinizes his every move, looking for signs that the Senate’s most famous maverick is trying to cloak himself in conservative clothes in preparation for another run for the White House in 2008. If McCain runs — he says he’ll decide next year — it’s not just religious conservatives he would have to make peace with. Over the years, he has clashed with enough factions within the Republican base — including tax cutters, gun owners, opponents of increased immigration and the numerous critics of the campaign finance law he co-wrote — that any contact with these groups is portrayed as an overture to a primary in which he would have to win them over.

But maybe McCain’s objective is not to win all of them over, but simply to neutralize them. The content, tenor and outcome of these meetings suggest that the self-styled maverick’s true goal is to blunt the kind of opposition he faced in his unsuccessful 2000 primary run against Bush, when conservatives shouted him down with news conferences and negative ads.

This time around, McCain is perfecting the art of softening his opponents. He listens closely to grass-roots skeptics, leaves himself just a touch of wiggle room and defuses conflicts by zeroing in on any possible points where he and his critics agree, rather than where they disagree.

Some conservative strategists and political analysts believe that if McCain uses this strategy, the Republican nomination might not be as hard for him to win as the conventional wisdom has assumed. He can simply build on his support within other factions of the Republican Party, such as moderates, military veterans, defense hawks and fiscal conservatives appalled by the growth in spending during the Bush administration. At the same time, he can emphasize public opinion polls that suggest he’s the Republican who could most easily defeat the current Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

To this end, McCain is working to get anti-tax groups to take another look by playing up his fiscal conservative credentials, such as his crusades against earmarks and his opposition to the expensive Medicare prescription drug bill. Voters who worry about illegal immigration may not like his bill to allow some to earn citizenship, but he gets them to at least listen by focusing on the one point on which they do agree: Keeping the status quo would be the worst solution of all.

Even his meeting with Falwell, though it may not have been the calculated move that most political outsiders assume, still sends an important political message. It tells religious conservative voters that he’s not at war with all of their leaders and that he respects their concerns enough to try to set old grudges aside.

“He has to defang the opposition of the conservative activists. Conservative voters are going to take their cues from the activists,” said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “I think that’s what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to defang the opposition.”
‘He’s Not a Liberal!’

McCain’s advisers want to avoid a repeat of the 2000 presidential race, when some interest groups questioned both his integrity and his loyalty to conservative causes. So their task, for the next two years, will be to ensure McCain gets to define himself — and shine the spotlight on the conservative side he has always had, rather than on his departures from the party line.

“Do I want to make sure we do a better job letting people know who he really is, rather than letting him be defined as something he isn’t? Yes, I do,” said Mark Salter, the Arizona senator’s top Capitol Hill aide and co-author of his four books. “We did not do a good job of that last time. They painted him as some sort of crypto-commie, when he had a record easily as conservative as Bush’s.”

There’s no doubt that McCain wants to be known as a conservative. But he insists he hasn’t suddenly started running to the right. He’s always been on the right, he says, and the handful of issues in which he departs from the party line doesn’t change that fundamental fact. “I’ve always been a pro-life, small-government, anti-spending, foreign-policy-hawk conservative,” McCain said recently. “If someone is disappointed to find out that I’m a conservative, then I apologize.”

His self-description comes with a big caveat, though. To the extent that modern conservatism can be measured, as conservative interest groups try to do with their Senate vote “score cards,” McCain often scores in about the 80 percent range. It’s the other 20 percent that gets all the attention. And last year, Congressional Quarterly ranked the independent-minded McCain among the top 10 Senate Republicans who voted against Bush and the majority of their GOP colleagues.

So his challenge is to shift attention back to his 80 percent conservative record without actually changing his positions. Lately, though, some of McCain’s moves have been widely seen as just that: a change in his positions. Besides meeting with Falwell, he voted in February to extend some of the Bush tax cuts that he had opposed when they were created. He also has suggested that a Biblical view that the universe developed from an “intelligent design” should be discussed in the schools in addition to evolution — though he said it should be taught mainly so students know what the debate is about.

The result was a barrage of stories that suggested McCain was jeopardizing his image as a “straight talk” maverick. In April, he even received an uncharacteristically tough grilling from Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, normally one of the Arizona senator’s biggest fans.

McCain is more amused than bothered by the shifts in conventional wisdom. “The first round was, ‘McCain can’t win the nomination because he can’t win the conservatives.’ Now, ‘McCain’s winning the conservatives, but he’’ not a liberal! He’s not a liberal!'” he laughs.

Though he’s no liberal, McCain has veered away from his party on more than a handful of occasions — and they go well beyond campaign finance, which became such a focus of the 2000 race.

McCain voted against both of President Bush’s big tax cuts, in 2001 and 2003. He brokered the bipartisan “gang of 14” agreement last year that halted a probable showdown with Democrats over their ability to filibuster conservative judicial nominees. He is an advocate of policies to reduce global warming. He has cosponsored bills to protect patients’ rights in managed care plans and to allow low-cost prescription drugs to be imported from other countries, ideas that are resisted by most Republicans. He has expressed support for expanding embryonic stem-cell research, saying a personal plea from former first lady Nancy Reagan persuaded him to drop his opposition.

Overall, though, McCain has voted and spoken a conservative line on so many issues that it’s hard to see him as anything other than right of center.

On Iraq, his biggest criticism of the Bush administration is that it didn’t send enough troops. He advocates a vigorous defense and foreign policy, voting to support an anti-missile defense system and urging a harder line against Russian president Vladimir Putin. On domestic policy, he regularly crusades against pork-barrel spending, has voted for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and opposed the Medicare prescription drug bill as too expensive.

He was one of the biggest backers of Bush’s efforts to overhaul Social Security and create private savings accounts. Even after the failure of the Bush proposal, McCain still thinks private accounts are a good idea. He just wouldn’t make them the centerpiece; he thinks it’s more important simply to convince the public that “the system is broken.” McCain last year voted for pro-business bills to limit class-action lawsuits and gun-liability lawsuits. And he voted to confirm Supreme Court justices John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., whose nominations were considered high priorities for grass-roots conservatives and serious setbacks for liberals.

Indeed, though McCain’s vocal support for Bush on the Iraq War has helped to take some of the edge off his relationship with the man who defeated him in 2000, his stance might be unpopular with independents and Democrats in 2008 if the situation in Iraq does not improve.

That probably would not be a drawback for McCain with Republican primary voters. He has earned deep respect from conservatives of all stripes for his service to his country; the story of his five and a half years of brutal physical abuse as a prisoner of war in Vietnam is well-known to the nation by now. But McCain still faces deep skepticism from religious conservatives who think his stands on cultural issues are the relevant question now. And some powerful conservative groups will always take him to task for advocating tighter limits on campaign contributions, which they see as a violation of free speech.

But not all of his critics are dead set against another McCain run. The hurdles he would face within the party on other issues, such as tax cuts, immigration and gun rights, seem less daunting than they once did.

The criticism he gets on style points, such as his tendency to play to the media galleries and his willingness to flaunt his disagreements with Bush and his party, are packing less of a punch now that he has become one of Bush’s biggest defenders on the Iraq War. He also spent part of the recess helping GOP candidates raise funds in states such as Iowa, Ohio and Minnesota.

Will Republican primary voters take another look? That’s the biggest worry for McCain’s advisers, who know that if he runs — they always say “if,” never “when” — he’ll do best if voters see him as an economic and social conservative, the combination that they believe defines the middle of the Republican Party. They also know that the base of McCain’s support will be defined partly by who else is in the race. If former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani runs, for example, he’ll be a bigger draw for moderate Republican voters.

If McCain gets the chance to lead the Republican Party as its presidential nominee in 2008, his record suggests that he would try to lead it in a different direction: more conservative on spending, with a renewed focus on entitlements and earmarks, but also with a progressive side on issues such as campaign finance, lobbying rules and environmental conservation. The last presidential nominee who represented a similar change in his party’s nomination wasn’t a Republican, but a Democrat: Bill Clinton in 1992, who persuaded his party to take a more centrist course after three straight failures to win the White House.

Republicans don’t face that kind of pressure to change course — yet. But if congressional Republicans do badly in the midterm elections this fall, losing the House or the Senate, or even coming close, a McCain candidacy in 2008 might look more attractive to party activists because of his record of focusing on ethics, said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. “The better the party’s prospects look, the worse McCain’s prospects look,” he said.
The Power of Symbolism

McCain has made some symbolic moves that might win him credit with the right, but they don’t go very far, and they don’;t suggest that he’s making substantive changes in how he views the world. This is most evident in his dealings with the religious right. McCain actually criticized two conservative religious leaders as “agents of intolerance” in 2000 — and the other, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, has yet to hear anything from him, according to Robertson’s assistant.

Other prominent religious conservatives who may have more sway with GOP primary voters, such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, say they haven’t received any overtures either. Neither has longtime religious conservative leader Paul Weyrich. That would be an awkward meeting, to say the least. In his 2002 political memoir, “Worth the Fighting For,” McCain said of Weyrich: “I like to think I know a pompous, self-serving son of a b—- when I see one.”

In other words, there’s little evidence of a broad outreach campaign to religious conservatives. McCain did meet privately with some Republican activists in Iowa at the urging of Iowa native Terry Nelson, the political director for Bush’s re-election campaign and now an adviser to McCain’s political action committee, Straight Talk America. But McCain insists that the Falwell meeting occurred not because he was reaching out to the right, but because Falwell reached out to him — an account Falwell does not dispute.

“If someone comes and says, ‘I’d like to put our differences behind,’ and you refuse it, I’m not sure that’s a very big person,” McCain said. The invitation is open to other critics in the religious right. “If Mr. Perkins said he wanted to come see me, I’d certainly see him,” McCain said. “But one, I doubt it, and two, it hasn’t happened.”

Whether McCain offered Falwell any substantive concessions when they met is not clear. Falwell thought McCain had softened his opposition to the gay-marriage amendment, by suggesting he would back it if state initiatives to ban same-sex marriage didn’t work. “I can live with that,” Falwell said.

But McCain argues that his exact pledge to Falwell — that he would support a constitutional amendment only if state initiatives were struck down by the courts — was taken straight from his floor statement during the 2004 Senate debate on the measure. Most of the 2004 speech focuses on McCain’s opposition, not his conditions for supporting it. But sure enough, the speech does contain a pledge to take another look if the federal courts get in the way of state initiatives.

Falwell’s meeting with McCain, and his subsequent phone conversations, left him with the impression that McCain has a reasonable hope of mending fences with religious conservatives. “While there remains some ground to be made up, and he knows that, it’s all doable,” he said.

The record is murkier on tax cuts. After voting against Bush’s major tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, McCain recently voted to extend some of them. Critics called that a reversal of his opposition to the tax cuts. McCain argues that now that the tax cuts are in place, a failure to extend them would effectively be a tax increase.

If so, he won’t be able to stick with that argument for very long. When the Senate votes later this year on whether to repeal the estate tax permanently, McCain intends to vote against it. Why? Because he makes distinctions between different tax cuts. He supports some but thinks a complete repeal of the estate tax isn’t needed to help the middle class. He’s willing to reduce it, which would help most wealthy families, but not eliminate it for the super-rich.

“It was Teddy Roosevelt who said, ‘We shouldn’t create dynasties,'” McCain said. When asked why taxpayer groups wouldn’t consider it a tax increase to revive the estate tax, McCain paused. “I just don’t think it’s right,” he said finally.

Such distinctions raise another challenge for McCain in a presidential race: Voters may not understand, or appreciate, the caveats and nuances in many of his positions. If the Republican Party is ready for a pragmatic turn after years of ideological polarization, its voters might turn to McCain. But if primary voters want a simple answer — are you for tax cuts or against them? — he may not be able to give it to them. In the Senate, there are plenty of chances to explain your votes on a case-by-case basis. On the campaign trail, with opponents nipping at your heels, it’s a harder act to pull off.
In Search of Acceptance

By striking a truce with Falwell while making it clear that he doesn’t endorse everything Falwell stands for, McCain gets the symbolic benefit of making peace with a well-known Christian conservative with only minimal risk of a backlash from independent voters. For all the criticism McCain has received for meeting with Falwell, he would have taken far more heat if he had met with Robertson, whose inflammatory statements, such as calling for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, have marginalized him among Christian conservatives as well as the general public.

“I don’t think he’s trying to reach the most hard-core religious conservatives,” said Amy E. Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Illinois, an evangelical Christian school. “What he’s trying to do is not to alienate religious voters more generally. At a minimum, he has to be acceptable to religious conservatives.”

Likewise, by stressing his fiscal conservative credentials — which include a vote against the expensive Medicare prescription drug program — to taxpayer groups that otherwise would focus on his votes against Bush’s tax cuts, McCain can get a better reception from grass-roots voters who make tax relief a top priority. Interviews with anti-tax activists suggest that the opposition to McCain is stronger inside Washington than outside the Beltway, and that grass-roots groups are more likely to consider his tax-cut and spending records as a whole.

“If his goal is to get conservatives to say, ‘John McCain is my guy,’ that’s probably not an achievable goal,” said Keene, a McCain critic. “If his goal is to get conservatives to say, ‘John McCain, while he might have some problems, is OK,’ that’s a hard but possibly achievable goal.”

The catch, though, is that McCain still delights in pointing out his departures from the party line. Even as he tries to establish his conservative credentials, he’s quick to point out his role in banning torture of overseas detainees and his support for policies to reduce global warming, issues that put him at odds with a significant number of his Republican colleagues.

Indeed, McCain spends much of his time these days trying to advance an immigration bill that could allow longtime illegal immigrants to work toward citizenship — an initiative his critics warn could jeopardize his presidential hopes, particularly since his partner in the effort has been Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the arch nemesis of most grass-roots conservatives.

Many conservatives are skeptical that he can win over the primary voters who will probably have other, arguably more conservative candidates — such as Virginia Sen. George Allen, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — to choose from. Potential candidates such as Allen, Frist and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback tend to do better than McCain on many of the score cards conservative groups use to rate lawmakers’ votes, though McCain’s ratings are sometimes affected by issues only nominally related to the groups’ stated missions, such as campaign finance.

The real problem, prominent conservatives say, is that McCain has too long a history of pushing initiatives that challenge the party’s leadership, from the campaign finance overhaul to the “gang of 14” agreement on judicial nominees.

“Republican primary voters have a history of nominating the most conservative candidate who can get elected and has been loyal to the party,” said Hugh Hewitt, a conservative talk-radio host and author of Painting the Map Red, a book about strategies for creating a permanent Republican majority. McCain doesn’t fit the model, Hewitt argues, and won’t be able to mend fences with the party activists because “they don’t trust him to put his own interests behind those of his party.”
A Second Chance

McCain faces a hostile audience in conservative power brokers such as Grover Norquist, the prominent anti-tax activist who heads Americans for Tax Reform, and Weyrich, the religious conservative leader who runs the Free Congress Foundation. But outside of Washington, activists are more willing to give him a hearing.

“People are pretty open,”‘ said Randall Thompson, the midwest director for Freedom Works, an issue advocacy organization that doesn’t endorse candidates but works with grass-roots anti-tax activists. With two years left before the Republican presidential primaries begin, he said, “that gives all of the candidates a lot more time to make their case.”

And though McCain has clashed in the past with the National Right to Life Committee, one of the groups that helped sink his 2000 campaign, the criticism he faces now doesn’t run very deep. Most social conservatives now acknowledge that McCain has a solid anti-abortion record. Their main issue with him is that he doesn’t talk about it much, as if he doesn’t want to lead on the issue — hardly the kind of flaw that can’t be rectified in the primaries.

“He can buy enough peace here that I don’t think he’ll face the same level of opposition that he did last time,” said Neal Thigpen, a political scientist at Francis Marion University in South Carolina, the state where McCain’s primary loss to Bush in 2000 led to his outburst against religious conservatives and the end of his presidential candidacy.

When McCain faces his conservative critics at public forums — his preferred format for dealing with them — there’s a testy side that can surface, just as it has with some of his Senate colleagues. He can be blunt and sarcastic about feedback that he doesn’t consider well thought out. But he also can be enthusiastic about seeking a dialogue with audience members if there’s a chance their criticism can be defused.

At a Republican fundraiser McCain attended in Concord, N.H., on April 7, an event televised nationwide on C-SPAN, he invited critics of his immigration bill to let him know if they had any better ideas. An audience member suggested that “we close the borders, then you deal with them one bus at a time.” In other words, send every illegal immigrant out of the country. McCain’s response: “Well, that’s a great idea. That should take about, mmm, 35 to 40 years.”

He was more willing to engage another audience member, a former state legislator named Ron Dupuis, who suggested during the question-and-answer session that there’s already a guest-worker program: “the green card.” McCain took Dupuis’ business card, promised to send him a copy of the immigration plan, and asked him to write back with feedback. The one thing that was certain, McCain said, was that “we can’t just have the status quo.” Dupuis backed off. “I agree with you,””he said.

It was the same line McCain used to try to reach agreement with the man who wanted to bus out all of the illegal immigrants: “We can’t just have the status quo.” It’s not a line that’s likely to swing his critics over to his side. But it stops the argument. It blunts the opposition.
The Campaign Finance Law

There’s one overriding issue that unites the religious conservatives, the tax cutters and the gun owners against McCain, and it’s only indirectly related to their issues: the campaign finance changes that McCain and three other lawmakers pushed through Congress in 2002. And that is the one issue where there may be nothing McCain can do to pacify his critics.

In 2000, when a campaign finance overhaul was still just a long-stalled issue on McCain’s plate, groups such as Americans for Tax Reform, the National Rifle Association, the American Conservative Union, the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee campaigned against him in New Hampshire and South Carolina over the issue. They called his proposal a threat to free speech because of its restrictions on unlimited “soft money” contributions by interest groups.

The campaign finance proposal made McCain a darling of the press, Norquist complained at the time, because it would “knee-cap” conservative groups without hurting the media or labor unions. “He might have gotten away with it if not for the power and competence of the conservative media and grass roots,” Norquist wrote in a May 2000 article in The American Spectator after McCain’s defeat.

In 2002, however, McCain successfully pushed the legislation through the Senate with the help of Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who’s now likely to pursue his own bid for the White House in 2008. Several groups, including the NRA, the National Right to Life Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sued to overturn the law in an unusual partnership with liberal groups such as the AFL-CIO.

But it was mostly upheld by the Supreme Court, and now the same conservative groups blame it for a variety of ills — including the rise of “527” political groups, which aren’t held to the same restrictions — that they argue have mainly benefited Democrats. “I think the NRA’s biggest problem with him is campaign finance reform,” said Alan M. Gottlieb, president of, a grass-roots gun-owners’ group based in Bellevue, Wash. “That becomes a gun issue, so to speak.”

The same complaints also came up when McCain proposed lobbying legislation that, among other things, would have required grass-roots lobbying firms to comply with lobbying disclosure rules. That only added to his critics’ complaints that he would make it difficult for conservative advocacy groups to make their views known.

“I think he definitely needs to improve his idea of freedom of speech,” said Sadie Fields, state chairwoman of the Christian Coalition of Georgia.

McCain voted against the lobbying bill that passed the Senate, but only because he said it was too weak.

On other issues, McCain has room to leave the door open to compromise. But campaign finance is one issue where he is too deeply vested to do that — and his critics wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than an apology, which he isn’t about to give. If anything, he believes the influence of money in politics is a hotter topic than ever, with the rise of the 527s — which he blames on weak regulation by the Federal Election Commission — and the role he believes pharmaceutical companies played in shaping the Medicare bill.

“When I know what the right thing to do is, and I do it, it always turns out fine,” McCain said. “If I do something for political reasons, it always turns out badly. It’s just the way my political life has unfolded.”
When the Moment Arrives

There’s always a chance that there won’t even be a McCain campaign in 2008. All of his recent moves — hiring Bush advisers such as Nelson, visiting primary states, lining up financial donors — suggest a man who has put a lot of thought into it. And it might be hard to resist with all the polls that suggest he could be the front-runner. The biggest wild card, however, might be his health. Ronald Reagan was 69 when he was elected president in 1980. McCain is 69 now, and he’ll turn 72 on the campaign trail if he runs.

McCain is a high-energy man who gets bored when he has too many gaps in his schedule, and he holds animated conversations full of humor and enthusiasm. But his days as a prisoner of war exposed him to brutality Reagan never faced: broken limbs, inadequate medical care, malnourishment, heat, disease and various forms of torture. He’s also had skin cancer. He and his allies might be ready for the race, and his party might be persuaded that his moment has arrived, but there’s no guarantee that his health will hold up when the time comes.

If McCain does run, his best hopes will rest with voters such as Bill Ryan, a Republican activist who met McCain during an April 11 appearance at a fundraiser for Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell.

Ryan, the president of an insurance and human resources consulting firm in Cleveland, only got to chat with him briefly. But he said he left the fundraiser “more impressed with John McCain than I was going in.” And he’s looking forward to hearing more — about McCain’s whole record, not just one or two issues. “Most people recognize it’s difficult to base any decision on any one issue,” said Ryan. “And we, the voters, don’t have any lock on truth either. It’s a good idea for us voters to listen, too.”

Should McCain decide to hit the campaign trail in 2008, he’ll have to hope there are a lot more Bill Ryans out there. If not, his campaign won’t last much longer than it did six years ago. But if there are — and the critics can be at least quieted, if not won over — then Jerry Falwell may be right about John McCain: “It’s all doable.”