Arizona Senator John McCain is the nearest thing the GOP has to a Presidential front-runner at this early stage of the 2008 campaign run-up. But maintaining his trustworthy image and delivering a coherent message may prove difficult for McCain when press, pundits, and political opponents begin in earnest to accuse him of flip-flopping on issues and pandering to the far Right. After six years of Bushspeak, voters are yearning for a straight-shooter. But can McCain's longstanding reputation for consistency and principle stand up to scrutiny?
As a legislator McCain is best known for pushing campaign finance reform. In the decade since McCain-Feingold was first proposed, however, waging a national campaign has become more and more frightfully expensive, to the point where any serious candidate in 2008 will be thinking very hard before participating in a public financing system whose restrictions might hobble him or her from the start. In 2004, both John Kerry and the Democrats' early front-runner Howard Dean decided that if they wanted to raise enough money to compete in the crucial early-primary states, they had to opt out of receiving federal matching funds. President Bush's re-election campaign also declined the funds.
A new incarnation of campaign finance reform raises the matching-fund amounts and tweaks the system so as to – at least in theory – make it more palatable to candidates. But this legislation is conspicuous for McCain's absence as a sponsor.
No doubt it's his Presidential ambitions that have induced McCain to drop the issue on which he made his political reputation during the past ten years. Campaign finance reform is certainly lower on the public's list of concerns now than it was then. The public understands the high cost of campaigning, and it also has more urgent things to worry about. Still, lawmakers like McCain were supposedly pressing for campaign finance reform all along because of principle. Voters may be used to political expedience trumping integrity, but potential McCain supporters are likely to be disappointed in a "straight-shooter" who has turned out to be just like everyone else.
McCain is a canny politician who may find a way to head off such criticism. He may elect to participate in the matching fund program. He may successfully make the case that it's not realistic for any candidate to do so under the circumstances. He may simply benefit from public indifference, which should never be underestimated. One thing the public rarely will countenance, though, is a frequent flip-flopper, and McCain's opponents in the primary and (if he wins it) the general election will find ample ammunition for accusing him of being one. His positions have changed on many issues, including some important ethical or "values" issues on which holding to the conservative line is clearly meant to boost the candidate's appeal to Karl Rove's far-right "base."
The most recent example, as The Carpetbagger Report points out, is Roe v. Wade. Formerly opposed to overturning the landmark abortion rights decision, McCain told George Stephanopoulos in November 2006 that "I do believe that it’s very likely or possible that the Supreme Court should — could overturn Roe v. Wade, which would then return these decisions to the states, which I support." Whatever McCain's real views about Roe v. Wade may be – and at this point, who knows? – strongly anti-choice voters are likely to see his "conversion" as purely opportunistic.
Two of McCain's flip-flops have already received a great deal of press attention. First, since sensibly referring to Jerry Falwell as an "agent of intolerance" while campaigning in 2000, McCain has cozied up to the hateful preacher, meeting with him and even delivering the commencement address at Falwell's cynically named Liberty University. Second, after taking an unequivocal stand against the use of torture, the former prisoner of war caved in to the Bush administration on the anti-torture law he himself had drafted, enabling the Justice Department to make a strong case that the rules didn't apply to prisoners held at Guantanamo.
McCain has also changed his mind about Grover Norquist, Bob Jones University, and Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, among other things. Any one of his changes in position may be amenable to nuanced explanation, but their combined weight may be too much even for Wily John to carry into 2008.