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How Conservative Is John McCain?

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With all the attention being paid to the death-struggle between Clinton and Obama on the left, not much attention is being paid to John McCain, but he is still the presumptive Republican nominee, and eventually voters on the right will have to stop gloating about the Democratic meltdown and start thinking seriously about how they feel about McCain. Some far right groups are already raising concerns and throwing around accusations that McCain is a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and doesn't embrace true conservative values.

They may be overlooking the fact that the GOP is more than just a hardcore conservative party and that it has always had a strong libertarian constituency and a good large chunk of moderates, but are they even right? Is McCain really as left-leaning as the far right would have us believe? The information compiled about McCain's record on sites like Project Vote Smart and On the Issues seems to suggest that while McCain isn't an entirely textbook conservative he certainly holds very conservative positions on most core issues, adding up to a position which is certainly to the right of the mainstream of the GOP, even if it is not on the extreme right.

Let's consider McCain's record on the top five conservative issues: guns, taxes, abortion, defense, and family values.

Guns: McCain is from Arizona, which is about the most conservative state in the nation on gun issues. He wouldn't be in office at all if he wasn't a big gun supporter. And in fact, McCain has opposed every major gun control proposal he's been presented with. He supported assault weapon ownership, he supports a national law to allow concealed carry, he opposed allowing suits against gun makers, he opposed magazine size and ammunition restrictions, he voted against the Brady Bill, and he voted against background checks at gun shows twice.

It is literally impossible to have a more conservative position on gun control than McCain does based on his actual record. Nonetheless, many have accused McCain of being a 'gun grabber' based primarily on his low ratings from Gun Owners of America. What they usually aren't aware of is that the GOA rating which McCain did poorly on includes a lot of very strange issues which have nothing to do with guns and represent GOA's broader reactionary agenda. As a result many Republicans who are very pro-gun scored even lower than McCain.

Taxes: McCain opposes virtually every possible tax increase and is on the record advocating decreasing or eliminating most taxes. Unlike most of the other candidates, McCain actually took Project Vote Smart's Political Courage Test in 2004 and it goes into considerable detail on his position on taxes. It shows him advocating greatly decreasing taxes in every area, except for income taxes on the highest incomes and the cigarette tax, both of which he would maintain at current levels. He opposes the marriage penalty, would decrease inheritance taxes, increase most deduictions, lower capital gains taxes, and even lower corporate taxes. The only places where he comes up at all short is that he doesn't go all the way to eliminating the current tax system or repealing estate and capital gains taxes.

He consistently receives one of the highest ratings from groups like Americans for Tax Reform and the National Taxpayers Union. In fact, he had a higher rating from the NTU than Ron Paul did and was the sixth highest rated of all Senators and Representatives. Nonetheless there are those who fault McCain's record on cutting taxes because he didn't vote for the original Bush tax cuts. Yet at the time he made very clear that he thought those cuts should be accompanied by spending cuts, and it's hard to imagine a more conservative or fiscally responsible position than that.

Abortion: According to the Political Courage Test, McCain has a pretty conservative and very clear position on abortion. He opposes any kind of public funding, opposes abortion in all cases except for rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is in danger. He also voted against allowing partial birth abortion. The only way he could be more conservative on abortion would be to support a total ban on all forms of abortion, and only a handful of elected Republicans take that position. Abortion groups tend to be absolutist, but throughout his career McCain has had solid 0 ratings from NARAL and Planned Parenthood, and has had fairly good ratings, mostly in ther top 20% from groups like the National Right to Life Committee. On this issue his position is pretty unambiguous, and only the most extreme conservatives think there are even any questions to raise.

Defense: When it comes to the war on terror, opposing radical Islam, and supporting the military, McCain is about the most conservative person you can find in elective office. He's the prototype of a pro-defense hawk. His record on this is unassailable. He's supported every military action, every aggressive foreign policy, and every military appropriation he's ever seen. On this one he's actually too conservative for some conservatives who have come around to the other side and become less than sanguine about military adventurism. But certainly on the view of defense which has been traditional among Republicans, McCain is as conservative as they come.

If McCain comes up short on this issue it's only in the very limited context of his opposition to torture and his belief that suspected terrorists have a right to some sort of trial. Last time I checked, support of torture wasn't a mainstream conservative position and most conservatives are strong on human rights, so I don't really see these positions as inconsistent with conservatism, even if they are out of step with the Bush administration.

Family Values: This is a bit of a catch-all, but it's clearly important to religious conservatives if not to those who are conservative primarily on issues like defense and taxes. In this area McCain certainly seems to toe the conservative line. He's a church-going Christian. He supports the War on Drugs and the death penalty. He supports school choice and vouchers. Perhaps most importantly he supports a federal ban on gay marriage. And his abortion position, mentioned earlier, fits right in, too. Some conservative groups give him good ratings, like Traditional Values Coalition. Yet other conservative groups aren't pleased with McCain, which may be because his conservative positions are traditional, but not extreme. Gay marriage is a good example, because while he opposes gay marriage he does support legal and equal civil unions, a position he shares with President Bush, but which irritates those who think that sodomy should still be illegal. 

Other Issues: On some lesser but still quite important issues, McCain has notably conservative positions. His views on welfare are extremely conservative, for example. He wants to link all forms of welfare to work and training programs and funnel as much of it as possible through private institutions, including church groups. That's a very conservative position. More importantly to me, he also supports privatization of Social Security, a position which convinced me to support Bush, and which he found himself unable to follow through on. Maybe McCain could make privatization a reality. He has also come out against some elements of the Patriot Act and believes in more restrictions and oversight on wiretaps and other forms of surveillance of citizens and that seems like a very positive conservative position.

Where McCain does come up short for some conservatives is on the issue of immigration, and the related issues of free trade and corporate capitalism. While conservatives have traditionally been pro-business and in favor of trade and keeping the cost of labor down, a lot of conservatives have strayed from that traditional position and have become increasingly nativist, protectionist and isolationist, all positions which used to be the exclusive domain of the left. On this issue I would contend that McCain remains true to conservative values, and a lot of self-described conservatives have lost their way. In my book they are the real RINOs.

While McCain could possibly be more conservative, he's more conservative than many Republicans, and the truth is that if he were much more conservative than he is he'd have little chance of winning a national election and certainly wouldn't draw many of the essential Democrat and independent votes needed for a win. So to answer the question in the title, McCain is pretty damned conservative and you couldn't reasonably expect more. Conservatives who oppose him ought to take a moment and consider who they could support who is more conservative and could actually get elected. They might also want to consider the alternative — their choice of two extremist socialists who view any form of conservatism as evil.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Zedd


    As usual, you are full of it. But I suspect you know that already. That square peg keeps calling your name and “By George” your gonna fit it in there. I just find it funny that people are agreeing with you. Lets hope that you find it funny too because you clearly make things up as you go.


    What is more laughable is the conservative agenda. Wow, Wow, Wow, Wow!!! What the heck is that all about?????? Guns, War on Terror, Family Values and Abortion??? What the heck is that and what do any of those things have to do with ANYTHING real?

    Family Values as defined by going to church and supporting school vouchers. Wow!! Now looking at the history of mankind and the construction of the family unit… what part does going to church and vouchers have to do with family links (that were much more stronger) 250 yrs ago for say, Native Americas, 800yrs ago for mostly everyone or 2000yrs ago or 3000… you get the point. That… is… stupid. I hope you realise that (help us all). Lets not talk about vouchers. Same argument but more embarrassing to make. Sigh!!

    Guns??? For what? What do they do for the average none socially deranged individual? A toy you say?? Okkkkaaaaay…. STUPID compared to health-care, gas prices, jobs and opportunity.

    War on Terror… That phrase is embarrassing. What terror??? We were attacked by a handful of men with box cutters. Is it me????

    Hawkishness…??? About what? We are waging war in the wrong country. HELP!!! It has to be said Dave… STUPID.

    Perhaps the real point is that McCain is good for the country because he is NOT what is termed (as of late) a Conservative. He applies reason to his endorsements. While he has sold his soul to the devil in order to win the election, he has had a decent record of being reasonable and not STUPID.

  • troll

    …well certainly they’re terrified that forbidden images of the Prophet will bubble up in their dreams

    Dave – you’ve about convinced me to root for the statist socialists just to see what alien systems they might try to implement…think that they’ll return America to the good old days of pre Reagan Socialism with a 90% tax rate – ?

  • Doug Hunter

    To be precise, the Danish population is less than several US metro areas, not individual cities (other than New York).

  • Doug Hunter

    They’re certainly fearful of immigration and brown people invading their utopia. Being cut off by water from any 3rd world countries doesn’t hurt their situation. Also, the total population of Denmark is less than 6 million (smaller than many US cities), making it problematic to compare to a large and diverse country. Perhaps Denmark compares best to a US state like connecticut. I doubt most people in connecticut are terrified of the things you mentioned either.

  • No Bliffle, it’s terrifying to imagine America if we had to pay 75% or more of what we earned in taxes.

    If you’re not terrified then you’re not paying attention.


  • bliffle

    “Terrifying”? Are the people of Denmark “terrified”? Do they live in constant fear? Are they fearful of losing their homes? Are they terrified of going hungry? Are they terrified of losing their healthcare and dieing? Are they terrified of being turned out in the streets to beg in their old age?

    Or are they ‘terrified’ that they may not be able to afford a third SUV?

    Are the Danes ‘terrified’?

  • Jon, I would argue that what we might very well get out of our democrat candidates is considerably worse than Eurosocialism like what you encountered in Denmark because it would be imposed in an environment where it is more alien and less compatible with the economic and governmental system which is already established.

    And not all socialist countries are like Denmark. Hell, I’d hardly even call Denmark all that socialist except for the huge taxes and welfare for everyone. It’s a constitutional monarchy (where the monarch still retains full executive authority and just chooses not to use it) and it refused to join the EU currency system. It’s one of the most conservative countries in Europe. But check out its tax rate sometime. 45-53% income tax PLUS a VAT of 25%. That’s truly terrifying.


  • bliffle

    OK Jon, tell me true: Is Denmark horrible? Are the people there suffering from poor health, poverty, deprivation? Are they sad? Do they whisper furtively about oppression? Gulags? Are there hungry, miserable, homeless, poor people littering the streets?

  • Clavos

    It’s a slippery slope…

  • Very cogent analysis of McCain’s conservative credentials. I’m reading up on him some more, because I want to do my tiny part in the next months to try and make sure he isn’t elected, but you’ve covered a lot.

    Where you’re wrong (but you always have been on this) is regarding socialism. I just got back from Denmark. It is, to a big extent, a socialist country – although the current center-right govt. is rolling some of it back. Nothing you’d get out of our Democratic candidates comes very close to actual socialism. This difference becomes clear when you visit a socialist society.

  • Baronius

    Dave, most every candidate dotes on his constituencies before the election, then stabs them in the back when he attains power. It’s not pleasant, but it happens often enough that you get used to it. McCain treats conservatives with disrespect now, so it’s difficult for a lot of us to trust in his loyalty down the road.

    Anyone who’s watched McCain in the primaries, in the Senate, and at the 2000 convention knows that he’s more comfortable attacking Republicans than Democrats. He’s said worse things about Romney and Huckabee than about Obama and Clinton. He blames the current economic downturn on Wall Street greed. He may vote pro-life and anti-tax, but he doesn’t push those issues.

    Even on defense issues, McCain has been the first to oppose the Bush administration. I’m no expert on the subject, but I think he micromanages the military, or at least nitpicks. He’s reliably provided cover for Democratic criticisms. Maybe that will change when he’s in charge, because he can brook no criticism. (Actually, if this North Carolina GOP dust-up is any indication, he’ll be expecting everyone to follow every one of his commands.) He’s solid on defense, but also territorial.

  • Pablo

    How conservative is McCain? Just about as ummm as conservative as the new world order shill Dave is. It is no wonder that he likes him. A far far cry from Badnarik wouldn’t you say Davey boy? CFR, CIA, NSA, libertarian my ass.

  • But it goes to the heart of Dave’s piece, which asks why McCain is anathema to many conservatives considering that he seems to share most of their basic values. It comes down to one or two issues, such as immigration and free trade, where he’s taken a more centrist position.

    What troubles me about this is that 10 years ago no conservative politician would have seriously tried to build a campaign or a career on a nativist stance on immigration the way that people like Tancredo have done, and there certainly wouldn’t have been a widespread movement to close the borders and someone like McCain wouldn’t be reviled by any significant number of Republicans for taking a moderate stance on immigration.

    Remember, 20 years ago everyone’s favorite conservative icon, Ronald Reagan, signed a REAL amnesty bill which actually gave amnesty to millions of illegals, no questions asked. McCain’s proposed immigration bill was miles more conservative than what Reagan signed and most Republicans in Congress voted for and passed.

    In that era being soft on illegal immigration was seen as a positive because it was perceived as a good thing for the economy, keeping wages and inflation down, helping out businesses and even adding willing workers to the workforce. Back then the GOP remembered that it was the party based at least in part on supporting business and positive economic policies.

    I guess the ultimate point is that this nativist trend is a divergence from the long-term stance of the party and it’s not a change for the better. It’s not the way the party would have acted even a few years ago and it really doesn’t make any sense today either.


  • Doug Hunter

    What I hear alot of is people who want to see the laws as written enforced, not to have laws ending immigration completely. I see people protesting illegal border crossings, I don’t see people protesting citizenship ceremonies.

    The government fucked up for years now and there is no way to make it ‘right’. The one thing that is certain is that without serious border enforcement #3 on your list is the only logical outcome.

    If you have no way of enforcing the rules you might as well not even bother making them in the first place. Your #2 is a good example, how exactly would you ‘control’ immigration with any more success than we do now? If your estimated need for workers was too high then you might as well let everyone who wants in, in. If it is too low or they don’t qualify for some reason they will simply cross illegally and work anyway with the result being essentially #3.

    The current situation is a travesty. Illegal immigrants = second hand citizens. They don’t complain or ask for anything more than legal status now but this issue will bite us in the ass with eery similiarities to slavery in the future.

  • No offense meant but you guys are both nuts. You have no idea why people oppose illegal immigration. I suppose its easy to simply call them racists and laugh about how they would love to shoot anyone with brown skin in order to avoid in thoughtful discourse.

    Thoughtful discourse on this subject is very difficult to come by, Doug, as witness pretty much every comment by Arch Conservative on the subject.

    I was being hyperbolic. But it goes to the heart of Dave’s piece, which asks why McCain is anathema to many conservatives considering that he seems to share most of their basic values. It comes down to one or two issues, such as immigration and free trade, where he’s taken a more centrist position.

    The right’s hysterical reaction to that, I feel, has more to do with the kneecapping McCain received at the hands of Uncle Karl during his previous tilt at the big white windmill in [crosses self] 2000. The Bush campaign had to paint McCain as liberal in order to make the case that their guy, the neocon, was the antidote to Clinton-Goreism.

  • Baronius

    Dave, that’s a double straw man argument, designed to fit yourself and McCain in the “moderate” middle.

    Consider these three possibilities:
    1) No one ever dies.
    2) Kill Nalle’s enemies.
    3) Kill everyone.

    Clearly, the first position is unrealistic, and the third one is insane. So the second one must be right, huh?

  • Doug, there are three basic positions on immigration.

    1. Totally opposed, seal the borders, expell everyone.

    2. Control immigration and allow reasonable numbers of needed workers in with documentation and a path to citizenship for a portion of them.

    3. Do nothing and let anyone cross the borders flouting the law and all common sense and national security.

    No sensible person supports #3 except for a small number of socialists and extreme libertarians.

    #2 is what I believe in and what John McCain believes in and what any sensible person ought to believe in.

    #1 is what the nativists believe in, and it is not a rational position and there’s no explanation for it that makes any sense other than something very much like racism. When those who support a position like that start going after McCain for endorsing ‘amnesty’ it is clear that they are motivated by something a lot more emotional than just wanting what’s best for the country, and it sure looks and feels like hate.

    And Baronius, I did specifically address the issue of immigration in my article and why i did not include it. IMO nativism is NOT a conservative position. It has always been the domain of the protectionist left in this country. It has been the champions of the working class who have always been most hostile to the importation of cheap labor, and even if some of them – like Pat Buchanan – are also morally conservative, they’re still not Conservatives in any real sense of the term.


  • Baronius

    Dave, I call “foul”. You mention the top five conservative issues, and provide a link to an article in the American Thinker. That article lists thirteen issues, the first of which is immigration. That article takes the opposite position as yours.

    If you’re going to provide links, you should note when they directly contradict your premise.

  • Dan Miller


    Race Card? I must have missed something, either in the article or in the commonly accepted definition of race card.


    An excellent article. Come the general election debates and other media exposure, we will get a better idea of where Senator McCain stands when the heat is on. In the meantime, Thanks.


  • Doug Hunter

    “Dr. D, I think you hit the nail right on the head there.”

    No offense meant but you guys are both nuts. You have no idea why people oppose illegal immigration. I suppose its easy to simply call them racists and laugh about how they would love to shoot anyone with brown skin in order to avoid in thoughtful discourse.

    I don’t like our current system becuase it lets in people with a different culture, religion, and language and enables them some measure of success simultaneously calling them ‘illegal’ and sewing the seeds of discontent. People of different backgrounds have a hard enough time attempting to coexist without the legitimate burden of being a second class citizen. Did slavery teach us nothing?

    We need to either A) set a limit on immigration and enforce it rewarding the law abiding types with citizenship while LEGITIMATELY trying to keep illegals out or B) drop the bogus second class status, tear down the fence, put up a second statue of liberty, assign everyone a SS# at the gate and send out the invitation.

    Politicians spineless, visionless failure to do either A or B in the past has brought us to this ridiculous juncture we’re currently at. If the solution is B then so be it, I have no problem with that. I have nothing against dark skinned people. (in fact I’m married to one)

    I am especially dissapointed in you Nalle. As a person who would normally be considered to have views on the right I’m surprised you would be so quick to trot out the race card when it suits your purpose seeing as you probably have had to defend yourself on many occasions from these same braindead and baseless attacks regarding many other issues you support.

  • Dr. D, I think you hit the nail right on the head there. And I think the success which McCain is going to have once we get down to the real campaign is going to show what a small group that hate-filled minority really is in the GOP. For most GOP mainstreamers the desirability of actually having workers overrides any nativist tendencies. And for anyone informed the evidence for the coming workforce crisis is just undeniable.


  • McCain’s depravity as far as the rabid right is concerned stems from his failure to advocate the shooting on sight of any Mexican who encroaches within 100 miles of the border.

    Not only that, but he compounded this mortal sin by co-authoring an immigration reform bill with… with… with… [gasp clutch splutter] a Democrat!!!!

    And not just any Democrat either, but a… a… a… a Kennedy!!!! I mean, you can see the cloven hooves!!!!! What was he thinking???

    (Is that enough punctuation…?)

  • Lee Richards

    With friends like Sovereign, McCain doesn’t need any enemies.

  • Pam Baker

    By the way, before anyone jumps in my face calling me a “damn liberal” or some such nonsense — let me fill you in on a couple facts. Like McCain, I come from a family that has served in the US military for many generations.

    Of the most recent generations: my father served 2 tours of duty in Vietnam and was awarded the Purple Heart among other medals for outstanding service, and 2 of my 3 brothers served for years — the youngest also served in Bosnia and was wounded there.

    My other brother tried to join the Army, but wasn’t allowed entry because he broke his back as a teenager in a skate board accident. He couldn’t pass the physical. His heart was broken that he couldn’t serve as the rest of the family for generations has — including a great aunt or two.

    So don’t chant “patriotism” at me and don’t hand me a tacky yellow magnet for my car. I’m tired of hearing “support the troops” from the Republican party that has done anything but and it chafes my sensibilities for McCain to trash this new GI Bill. That alone will make me vote against him.

    Secondly, I am a moderate Democrat — one of those folks the Republicans want to help McCain score a national win. If you had a better candidate, I might consider it. But not McCain; he and Bush treat soldiers like disposable commodities.

  • Pam Baker

    I believe McCain is absolutely conservative from his 100 year war plan to his wrecking-ball swing at the new bipartisan GI Bill proposal (“keep the war, screw the troops” seems to be his platform).

    I respect his service to our country, but he is a bad choice for president and WAY too close to Bush for my tastes. Eight years of disaster is quite enough for me. I see no reason to allow McCain to further the damage.

    I also respect Republicans, they are my countrymen and I would fight for their right to disagree with me without hesitation. But it does look like they could have found a better candidate — maybe someone who took and passed Economics 101 in college, or someone who can keep the Sunni and Shiite references straight (at least in front of the cameras!).

    He’s a total embarrassment to the party and this country. I really wish Republicans would choose someone else for a candidate.

  • I definitely agree with your assertion that McCain has done a good job of keeping himself in a position to appeal to those in the center and even some on the left, while maintaining a very conservative voting record. In my opinion, I think a lot of things have fallen into place — as if an invisible hand were at work — guiding McCain to the White House. Check out the article I wrote about this.

  • Franco


  • Picking between Clinton and Obama is like picking between Abbott and Costello or perhaps Hitler and Mussolini. Which do you prefer, populist anti-corporate socialism or corrupt globalist socialism?

    I’ll pass on both, thanks.


  • Franco

    Dave, good piece. Been wondering all the same things. Things will get clearer by the end of June, hopefully anyway. BTW, who do you see winning out for the Dems between “sleep depraved 3am red phone”, and “smooth”.