Same old McCain

The halo didn't fit then and it doesn't fit now

Issue: "Tax man's terror," April 14, 2001

It's been just over a year since WORLD magazine stirred quite a ruckus with a cover story about John McCain, who was then nipping at the heels of frontrunner George W. Bush as a candidate for the presidency. WORLD's story got national attention through a scathing column by William Safire in The New York Times, syndicated in many other papers across the country. Mr. Safire bluntly accused us of sleazy journalism.

WORLD was not the only periodical to give front-page treatment to Mr. McCain; he was so much the darling of the media elite that he got a spot on almost everyone's cover. What was unusual about our story was that we raised specific questions about the senator's character and philosophical commitments. Most of the media those days, instead of asking questions about Mr. McCain, could only sing his praises. So for Mr. Safire and others, our questions bordered on treason.

In its main story a year ago, WORLD suggested that on a number of key issues, John McCain tended to sound, act, and vote like the very liberals whose ideas the 2000 election was all about. If, after eight years of the hijacking of the American culture in the Clinton-Gore direction, a McCain agenda proved to be the best we could do in response, what would be the point?

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In his cover story for the Feb. 19 issue last year, reporter Bob Jones summarized how on issues of taxes, campaign-finance reform, abortion, education, and Social Security, candidate McCain's tone tended to reflect Democrat doctrine rather than Republican reform. Readers might well keep in mind that at the time, many conservative Republicans remained unconvinced as well about George W. Bush's commitments. Even to many WORLD staff members, candidates like Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes seemed more authentic in their articulation of the core issues. But Mr. Keyes couldn't get past single digits in any of the primaries, and Mr. Forbes was in the process of dropping out altogether. So we were evaluating as carefully as we could those who were left.

In that context, in its cover story on Mr. McCain, WORLD reported specifically: "On campaign-finance reform, Mr. McCain would essentially suspend the First Amendment for 60 days prior to any federal election. He would make it illegal for nonprofit groups-from the National Rifle Association to the National Right-to-Life Committee-to advertise against a candidate, publish 'report cards' on votes, or even mention a candidate's name in a way that might 'materially benefit' his opponent."

All this is worth remembering now that Mr. McCain continues to stake out a position interpreted by many as a pointed challenge to the man who defeated him for the Republican nomination and who then won the presidency. On the one hand, Mr. McCain can be argued to have been a team player who campaigned here and there for the Bush-Cheney ticket (but especially for some 80 fellow members of Congress). And to this day, the senator claims-but not too emphatically-that he "has no animus toward Mr. Bush." On the other hand, he makes it clear almost every day that he still thinks it's his prerogative to make life uncomfortable for the fledgling Bush administration. As The New York Times's Maureen Dowd put it last week, "The Arizona dervish has plenty of zest for a rematch with the Texas dauphin."

All of which is to assert here that WORLD's skepticism about John McCain a year ago has now developed twice the basis it ever had. The senator may deserve a little credit for his persistent call for campaign-finance reform; I say "a little" because it doesn't really take much courage to call for such reform. But if that's his main issue-and even he would tend to say that it is-then the public has every right to judge this man by the details of the plan he offers for correcting such wrongs.

It's precisely when you get into such details that the McCain illusion tends to unravel. For whatever good intentions it may incorporate, the reform bill that he and his Democratic colleague Russ Feingold ushered through to Senate approval last week is gauzy, ambiguous, dubious, ineffective, and highly susceptible to Supreme Court reversal. That does not constitute public-policy leadership.

Indeed, John McCain's Senate career, right now as in the past, is characterized more by his role as a spoiler than as a leader. There's no law, of course, suggesting that a member of the Senate must be loyal to either of the major parties. But there is a common-sense law that suggests that if you want future leadership in one of those parties, you exhibit loyalty to the present leadership when its distinctives are at stake. Instead, Mr. McCain on way too many issues sings the disturbingly disloyal refrain suggesting that the solution to every problem is still a little more government tinkering. If that's really what he believes, maybe he should find a different political party affiliation-one that will back him in the propagation of such a worn-out idea.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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