McCain getting in position

By George F. Will Published:

By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- First Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, now John McCain and the media. Even torrid relationships are perishable. It was only a matter of time before the media turned on their pin-up, and that time has arrived. A rivulet, soon to be a river, of journalism is reporting -- as a mystery deciphered, even a scandal unearthed -- that McCain, who occupies the Senate seat once held by Barry Goldwater, is a conservative Republican.

He has been unmasked as a pro-life, pro-family, fiscal conservative. Those words are his, and are a reasonably accurate self-description of the man who voted against the prescription drug entitlement and the most recent transportation bill because of their costs.

McCain proclaims his extravagant admiration for Teddy Roosevelt, a man of many virtues, not one of which was moral modesty. Speaker of the House Thomas Reed once said to TR, If there is one thing for which I admire you more than anything else, Theodore, it is your original discovery of the Ten Commandments. St. John of Arizona can seem insufferably certain that he has cornered the market on incorruptibility. So as he begins trying to assemble a presidential majority, he seems, as anyone trying to do that will, like a run-of-the-mill sinner.

But his quest for the Republicans 2008 nomination was bound to require tactics inconsistent with his carefully cultivated reputation for unexampled authenticity. He has endorsed teaching intelligent design theory in schools, and has sought a detente with Jerry Falwell, one of the agents of intolerance he denounced in 2000. But who has ever assembled a presidential constituency without endorsing positions formerly avoided or compromising positions formerly endorsed?

McCain is considered morally compromised because he now favors making permanent some of President Bushs tax cuts that McCain opposed when they were first proposed. But enacting the cuts as temporary was purely a parliamentary maneuver. Revoking them would be as much a tax increase as would be reversing President Reagans reduction of the 70 percent income tax rate, and McCain says, Ive never voted for a tax increase.

Well, never, unless you ignore the huge -- $516 billion over 25 years -- tax increase in his 1998 tobacco bill. But that was less a revenue measure than an exercise of the McCainian righteousness that has so enchanted many of the people who are now becoming disenchanted. Few of them, however, are conservative Republicans whom McCain must court. Many of those Republicans especially abhor what his media friends most adore -- his unwavering commitment to campaign regulations that enlarge the governments power to regulate the quantity, content and timing of speech about itself, with the applauding media exempt from regulation, of course.

In 2000, McCain voted explicitly to amend the First Amendment, a vote that clearly confirmed his critics contention that McCains campaign reforms are incompatible with the First Amendment stricture that Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech. Fritz Hollings, then a Democratic senator from South Carolina, brought to a vote a proposed alteration to the First Amendment. It would have empowered Congress or any state to set reasonable limits on the amount of contributions that may be accepted by, and the amount of expenditures that may be made by, in support of, or in opposition to a candidate for federal office.

Hollings, whose candor was as admirable as his amendment was not, accepted the obvious fact that McCains approach to campaign regulation was incompatible with the plain language of the unamended First Amendment. McCain voted for Hollings amendment.

But to those Republicans who turn out to pick presidential nominees, one electoral consideration could trump ideological aversions: California. Ken Khachigian, a veteran of Ronald Reagans White House, is a California Republican strategist who in 2000 was a senior adviser to McCains campaign. Khachigian says McCain could put California in play. McCain might be the only conceivable Republican nominee who could.

To put California in play is not the same thing as carrying it. But carrying it is not necessary to significantly improve a Republican nominees national chances. If the nomination of McCain could force the Democratic nominee to spend a number of days and, say, $30 million to secure Californias 55 electoral votes, those days and dollars could not be spent in Ohio, Florida and other battleground states.

This November could produce what McCain could use -- grim election returns for Republicans. If on Nov. 8 Republicans are reeling and a re-elected Hillary Clinton is rampant, hitherto unenthralled Republicans might suddenly consider McCain as virtuous as he considers himself. For the politically nervous, virtuous is a synonym for electable.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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