Cover Story

Is McCain able?

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain is a war hero, respected third-term U.S. senator, and candidate who isn't afraid to tell voters what they don't want to hear. So why such reserve on abortion, President Clinton's infidelity and lying, and other cultural issues?

Issue: "Is McCain able?," Aug. 21, 1999

in New Hampshire - It's 8:45 a.m. on a drizzly Saturday morning in Conway, N.H. Even at this early hour, the temperature inside the American Legion hall soars as 150 locals pack in. But John McCain works the room without breaking a sweat. He shakes hands fast and furiously. He paces like a cat during his prepared remarks. In answer to questions from the floor, he displays an encyclopedic knowledge of taxes, budgets, and foreign affairs. The crowd loves him. He loves the crowd. He's on a roll. Then it happens. "Where do you stand on abortion?" asks a woman near the back. Is that a bead of sweat on his high forehead? With those six words, the whole mood of the room changes. Several people standing near the questioner cluck in disapproval, as if the very mention of the A-word were somehow in the poorest of taste. After the briefest of pauses, Mr. McCain cuts the tension. "Next question," he says with a laugh, pointing to someone on the opposite side of the room. He says it in jest, but he clearly wishes it were truly that easy. If only the social issues would go away. If only conservatives still feared the Politburo instead of Planned Parenthood. If only voters would focus on the F-16 fighter instead of the RU-486 abortion pill. Back in the good old days of the Cold War, John McCain was considered a conservative's conservative. Five and a half years in a Vietnamese prison-much of that time spent in solitary confinement-gave him anti-Communist credentials that no one else could touch. His hero status swept him into Congress on his first try, then into the Senate four years later. Last year, by a wide margin, Arizona voters returned him to the Senate for a third term, despite persistent rumors that his real goal was the White House. That goal must seem almost as distant now as it might have during his stay in the Hanoi Hilton. Despite constant campaigning across New Hampshire, Mr. McCain remains a distant second in this crucial primary state. While his 10 percent share in the latest poll represents his best showing to date, he still lags more than 30 percentage points behind his arch-rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The two men could hardly be more dissimilar. Mr. Bush is the golden boy of the GOP; Mr. McCain is the party's battle-scarred hero. Mr. Bush appears affable and laid back; Mr. McCain has a reputation for being prickly and tightly wound. Mr. Bush emphasizes grand visions and broad themes in his stump speeches; Mr. McCain dwells on minutiae like fist-fights in the Taiwanese parliament and the flight range of various missiles. But for all their differences in style, critics contend that the two candidates are very much alike in substance-both middle-of-the-road Republicans who spend little time on the divisive social issues that both energize and enrage many religious voters. "I would never want to minimize his conservative credentials, but he has never engaged the Christian right in attempting to assist them in their issues," says the Rev. Lou Sheldon, founder of the Traditional Values Coalition. "Neither he nor his staff have ever immersed themselves in carrying the water on our issues like a John Ashcroft or a Bob Smith has." Nor is it only conservatives who want to slap a "moderate" label on Mr. McCain. In Ossipee, N.H., a large crowd gathers under a tent next to the police station to hear the candidate speak. Standing before a larger-than-life, 30-year-old poster of himself in his naval aviator's gear, Mr. McCain vows to clean up the electoral system, provide wider access to health care, make TV safe for children, and ensure that big businesses pay their fair share of taxes. An older man with a craggy face and sharp eyes steps forward with a question. "As a liberal Republican, I believe I know one when I see one ..." he begins. The senator cuts him off quickly. "I'm proud to be a conservative," he insists, rattling off the standard Republican mantra of lower taxes and less government. But the questioner, Warren Manhard, won't be so easily dissuaded. Why does he believe Sen. McCain is a liberal? "Because of all the positions he takes on social issues," he says after the speech. "They just don't seem to be a major priority.... He seemed to be trying to promise big-government solutions to the exclusion of some other solutions." Such praise probably won't win Mr. McCain many votes among conservatives. But then, neither will some of his policies. His single best-known piece of legislation, the McCain-Feingold Bill, is anathema to many on the right, who see it as an effort to stifle their free speech on topics ranging from abortion to gay rights to gambling. The bill would treat independent issue-advocacy groups as if they were candidates running for office, forcing them to raise their money in $1,000 increments, report the names of all donors, worry about "equal time" requirements, and so forth. Furthermore, McCain-Feingold would cut off independent expenditures completely in the weeks just before an election-in effect shutting down the debate over controversial issues just when people may be most focused on them. "It would be devastating to groups that simply try to inform Americans about legislation," says Wendy Wright, a spokesperson for Concerned Women for America. "It would be a complete gag, especially on religious groups, since we'd be targeted first.... Experience has shown that this would not be equally enforced, but even if it were, the proposal guts the First Amendment. The First Amendment is designed to protect the minority view; the majority view doesn't need protection." "McCain-Feingold is nothing less than an attempt to limit free speech in elections," grumbles Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. "The religious right would be especially hard hit because voter guides and the like are the only way [for them] to reach the 'social precinct.'" Mr. McCain insists that such criticisms miss the point of his bill. "When I first ran for office, there was no such thing as soft money," he told WORLD. "Now it's out of control. Both parties are addicted to [soft money], so they claim irreparable harm if the bill becomes law. "We're not doing anything new," he adds. "We're just putting campaign contribution limits back into place." He points out that reform laws in 1907 and 1947 banned soft-money contributions by corporations and labor unions, but that both groups eventually found loopholes that allowed them to once again pump untold, unaccounted-for millions into the political process. Though issue-advocacy groups like Concerned Women for America or National Right to Life were not affected by the last two attempts at campaign finance reform, Mr. McCain has no intention of letting them off the hook this time. "All issue advocacy groups avoid the intent of the law, which is a $1,000 limit on contributions," he insists. "If they want to advocate a particular issue, that's fine, but when they enter into a campaign for or against a candidate, then they're violating the intent of the law. "Someone could give $1 million to National Right to Life or Emily's List or People for the American Way, then they take that money and run attack ads against somebody. And that's what they usually do-run attack ads, not something constructive or educational. If they want to do that, they should raise money like everybody else, in $1,000 contributions. That was the intent of the law." Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, sees political self-interest in Mr. McCain's overly broad definition of "attack ads." The language of the bill, he says, limits any communications that might "influence a federal election" or be "of value" to a candidate. "If we've got a big vote coming up in Congress, we'd send people a piece of mail or call them up saying, 'Congressman Jones has voted against the partial-birth abortion (PBA) bill, but it's coming up again. Please call this number and urge Congressman Jones to vote right this time.'" Right to Life contacted some 10 million people this way during the last PBA vote, says Mr. Johnson, and "I assure you the congresspeople in the districts where this was going on didn't like it. Under McCain's bill much of that would be deemed campaign activity"-and thus impermissible. Mr. McCain doesn't seem to mind the criticisms. Indeed, he covets the reputation as a plain-spoken maverick who is unafraid to buck business-as-usual in Washington. It's an image that plays well in the mainstream press: Esquire titled its recent profile, "John McCain Walks on Water," and 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace said he'd consider quitting that show to work as press secretary in a McCain White House. Likewise, out on the campaign trail, the Arizona senator rarely pulls punches, even on issues he knows will be unpopular. He tells voters in Ossipee that the nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyard should be closed, though he's well aware it will cost local jobs. Nor does he try to run away from his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, even though New Hampshire voters have twice endorsed Pat Buchanan's protectionist, America-first trade policies. All of which makes his non-stand on the abortion issue even more of an anomaly. The man who bravely faced torture and imprisonment in Vietnam turns suddenly weak-kneed and equivocal when confronted with the dreaded American soccer mom. In Conway, after his mock attempt to move on to the next question, he offered a rambling, nonspecific answer that would have made a Clinton speechwriter proud. Though he insists he, personally, is "morally pro-life," he said he would try to ensure that no voter felt "excluded" from the GOP. "I would not seek to overturn Roe vs. Wade tomorrow," he continued, because doing so would endanger the lives of women. He promised not to screen Supreme Court nominees for their opinion on Roe, and said he wants to change hearts on the abortion issue before changing any laws. To some pro-life leaders, Mr. McCain would have done better to stick with his original, "Next question?" response. "How would he want to change their hearts?" asks CWA's Miss Wright. "He doesn't seem convinced himself that we're talking about an unborn child or that abortion is devastating to women." "He has never been there for the tough votes and he would never lift a finger for the pro-life movement if he got elected [resident," adds Mr. Weyrich. "He's trying to broaden his base," says Mr. Sheldon. "He's seeking to attract the women's vote in saying what he did.... We all believe in the big-tent theory, as long as underneath that tent it isn't a bunch of mush." Mr. McCain, of course, disagrees that he's turning the abortion issue into mush. "I view it as an important issue," he told WORLD. "I view the death penalty as an important issue. But just because we support the death penalty, someone who opposes it shouldn't be excluded from the party. "If you said, 'I'm going to exclude someone because they're anti-death penalty,' most Republicans would laugh, though that's also an issue of morality, an issue of life and death." It isn't just on such life-and-death questions that Mr. McCain is loath to take a stand. His campaign as a whole is a sort of morality-free zone in which issues from gambling to school prayer are hardly ever mentioned. Observers of Mr. McCain's senate career would hardly be surprised. Throughout the entire Monica Lewinsky affair, the normally outspoken senator was nowhere to be seen-or heard. He insisted until the end that he had not made up his mind, and when the end finally came, his vote to convict seemed itself to lack conviction. Out on the stump, he is similarly hesitant to criticize President Clinton's moral failings. "I've stayed away from the private life of the president," he stressed in an interview with WORLD. "This is a campaign of policies and specifics." Very well then: Specifically, will he assure the voters that the private life of John McCain will be different from the soap opera playing in the White House for the past eight years? His answer-"Oh, sure; of course"-is nearly lost in a sudden spasm of throat-clearing. Plainly, this is not something he wishes to discuss. Yet he frequently assures voters on the stump that he'll never embarrass them and that he'll always act on principle. Does that mean no Monicas, no mistresses, no other morally compromising situations in a McCain White House? "Of course," he says. Then he turns more expansive: "But what I was referring to is that I won't take a poll on foreign policy issues. I won't be driven by public opinion, but by principle. I won't promise one thing and do another." Back in Ossipee, that's enough of a promise to win some friends-and likely some votes. Mr. and Mrs. Manhard, the self-professed liberal Republicans, wait patiently for a chance to shake the hand of the man they hope will be the next president. Not everyone is so impressed, however. While some wait in line with the Manhards, others merely huddle under the tent, waiting for the rain to subside. But one elderly lady, oblivious to the rain, heads straight to her car. Moments earlier, she'd asked a question about abortion, then frowned and shaken her head as the senator offered a short, vague answer. She's not waiting around to hear more.

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