A USA Today article described John McCain as "a maverick senator from the West" who has taken "maverick stands, including votes against Bush's tax cuts in 2001" and "his sponsorship last year of an immigration bill that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in this country," while a USA Today editorial asserted that "McCain's chief sin, apparently, is that he has broken ranks on issues that include campaign finance, President Bush's tax cuts, illegal immigration and global warming." Neither the article nor the editorial mentioned that McCain has since shifted positions on the Bush tax cuts and immigration.
In a January 24 USA Today article on the leading Republican presidential candidates, Washington bureau chief Susan Page wrote that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is "a maverick senator from the West" whose "willingness to stake out maverick views also makes him popular with the independents who typically decide politically divided states." Page later asserted that McCain's "maverick stands, including votes against Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and support of campaign-finance limits, have cost the Arizona senator within the GOP. So has his sponsorship last year of an immigration bill that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in this country." Additionally, a January 24 USA Today editorial asserted that "McCain's chief sin, apparently, is that he has broken ranks on issues that include campaign finance, President Bush's tax cuts, illegal immigration and global warming." However, neither Page's article nor the USA Today editorial mentioned that McCain has since shifted positions on the Bush tax cuts and immigration: McCain now favors making the Bush tax cuts permanent, and he now supports improving border security before addressing the issue of immigrants' legal status.
When Congress first considered the tax cuts in 2001, McCain said in a May 26, 2001, floor statement that he opposed the bill because "so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle class Americans who most need tax relief." And in 2003, McCain voted against legislation to accelerate the tax reductions enacted in the 2001 bill and to cut taxes on dividends and capital gains. Yet in 2006, McCain voted for the bill extending the 2003 tax cuts. When asked during the April 2, 2006, broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press why he changed his mind on Bush's tax cuts, McCain replied: "I do not believe in tax increases. ... The tax cuts are now there, and voting to revoke them would have been to -- not to extend them would have meant a tax increase." Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform -- who the USA Today editorial quoted criticizing McCain -- reportedly said at the time: "It's a big flip-flop, but I'm happy that he's flopped."
A press release on McCain's campaign website states, "John McCain will make the Bush income and investment tax cuts permanent, keeping income tax rates at their current level."
On immigration, while McCain originally called for a policy that both strengthened border security and established a guest-worker program or a path to citizenship, he now supports improving border security before addressing the issue of immigrants' legal status. Indeed, a November 3, 2007, Associated Press article about McCain's "approach" to immigration quoted McCain as saying he "understand[s] why you would call it a, quote, shift":
John McCain spent months earlier this year arguing that the United States must combine border security efforts with a temporary worker program and an eventual path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants.
Now, the Republican presidential candidate emphasizes securing the borders first. The rest, he says, is still needed but will have to come later.
"I understand why you would call it a, quote, shift," McCain told reporters Saturday after voters questioned him on his position during back-to-back appearances in this early voting state. "I say it is a lesson learned about what the American people's priorities are. And their priority is to secure the borders."
The shift in approach is likely to draw criticism from McCain's GOP opponents. Immigration has been a flash point in the race, with rivals Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson all seizing on it.
McCain, who has led on the issue in the Senate with Democrat Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, got a wake-up call of sorts in June when Congress again failed to enact a broad immigration proposal that he championed and that split the country.
The measure also exposed deep divisions within the Republican Party, and McCain's high-profile support for it hurt him politically. During debate on the issue as spring turned into summer, the Arizona senator saw his poll numbers in some early primary states slip and his fundraising wane.
Early in the year, McCain told Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina voters the country must take a comprehensive approach strengthening the borders as well as creating a temporary worker program and providing millions of illegal immigrants the opportunity to earn citizenship if they meet certain criteria.
Over the past few months, he has stressed border security first and said border-state governors should certify their borders are secure before making other needed immigration changes.
McCain said he listened to what the public was saying when the legislation failed -- and responded accordingly.
"I said, OK. We'll secure the borders, but after we secure the borders, we'll have a temporary worker program, we'll have to address the 12 million people here illegally, and I think the best way is the proposal that we had," McCain said.
"It's not a switch in position. I support the same solution. But we've got to secure the borders first," he added.
From the January 24 USA Today article:
What do Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have in common?
Not all that much.
The first three have won a major state contest in the race for the Republican presidential nomination this year, and Giuliani hopes to join their ranks with a victory in Florida next week. Beyond that, there are significant differences in their résumés and political appeal - and that signals a crossroads ahead for the GOP.
Huckabee is a personable former Southern Baptist preacher with a conservative Christian flock, McCain a maverick senator from the West with military credentials, Mitt Romney a can-do Northeastern businessman and Giuliani a tough-talking New Yorker who has been a prosecutor and mayor.
McCain's military background and staunch support of the war in Iraq has earned him formidable support among voters focused on national security. His willingness to stake out maverick views also makes him popular with the independents who typically decide politically divided states. His favorable rating among independents in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll this month was 59%, better than any of his Republican rivals and 9 percentage points higher than Clinton.
If McCain were the nominee, Rothenberg says his appeal to independents might give the GOP a shot at winning California - the nation's biggest electoral-vote prize and a state Democrats have carried since 1992. A McCain coalition would include conservatives and suburban independents, and his work on immigration could help him among Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing minority group.
But those same maverick stands, including votes against Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and support of campaign-finance limits, have cost the Arizona senator within the GOP. So has his sponsorship last year of an immigration bill that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in this country. In New Hampshire, McCain's clear victory was because of independents; he and Romney split Republicans.
"There are such bitter feelings about him because of a whole number of issues - I can't tell you the number of people who have said to me, 'If he's the nominee, I'll walk,' " Weyrich says. Count Weyrich among them: If McCain is nominated, he says, he'd probably support a third-party candidate.
From the January 24 USA Today editorial:
With Fred Thompson out, Sen. John McCain might well be the most consistent conservative left among the major presidential contenders. Unlike former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, McCain has never taken liberal positions on abortion or gay rights. And unlike former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, he is no economic populist.
Yet, of all the GOP candidates, McCain comes in for the most visceral criticism from fellow Republicans. Among his many critics are former House majority leader Tom DeLay, who says McCain "has done more to hurt the Republican Party than any elected official I know of," and radio host Rush Limbaugh, who says a McCain or Huckabee nomination would destroy the party. McCain has been called a turncoat, a traitor and - by party operative Grover Norquist - "the nut-job from Arizona."
McCain's chief sin, apparently, is that he has broken ranks on issues that include campaign finance, President Bush's tax cuts, illegal immigration and global warming. With the possible exception of immigration, these are not deal-breakers with rank-and-file conservative voters. Yet they are treason to an old guard of loyalty enforcers whose power appears to be ebbing. Their criticisms strongly suggest that as the party goes through what looks to be a moment of transition, it might benefit from some new blood among its operatives and ideologues.
McCain may or may not be the right choice for Republicans this year. But the attacks on him are hardly an appeal to core conservative values. They are rather a defense of professional partisanship, and the interests of people whose influence is predicated on it.
DeLay and Norquist were key players in a machine that helped bring about the biggest expansion in government since the New Deal, made self-preservation the overarching ideology of GOP lawmakers and helped take the party to new lows of corruption.
As for those in the business of conservative talk and opinion, they have thrived for years on their ability to neatly divide the world into good and evil. A McCain presidency would certainly muddy their picture. But that is happening anyway as the result of growing fissures within the party.
McCain fits well into a party shaped in recent years by Ronald Reagan. He espouses a strong defense, limited government and conservative social values. And, like Reagan, he is willing to work with Democrats on matters that don't undermine these core principles.
The more salient question is where McCain's harshest critics fit.