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He’s a weasel, but he’s my weasel

LAST WEEK, I WROTE in this space that John McCain is repositioning himself from Bush-smiting champion of the center-left to Falwell-feting champion of the loony right. I also wrote that that’s not such a bad thing.

How could I condone such a colossal flip-flop? The answer is that, unlike most other liberal journalists, I never swooned over McCain for being a dreamy military hero and straight-talker. Sure, McCain’s courage as a prisoner of war was almost indescribably heroic. But the whole idea of choosing political leaders on the basis of their personal character is silly. Duke Cunningham was a war hero too, but he turned out to be a crook. Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. were adulterers. Great leaders can be bad human beings and vice versa.

My swoon over McCain was for ideological reasons. McCain adopted all sorts of positions I shared. And his reasons seemed genuine. When he came to Congress, he had little expertise in issues other than the military, and thus tended to follow the Republican crowd. As he told me in 2000, “I was probably a ‘supply-sider’ based on the fact that I really didn’t jump into the issue.”

Then several things shook him loose from Republican ideology. As a presidential candidate in 2000, McCain had to think about the direction he wanted to take the country. He came into contact with middle-income Americans who were concerned about healthcare and making ends meet, not the capital gains tax. And he found himself attacked by the party apparatus for championing campaign finance reform, which up to that point had been his only real heresy.

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McCain began questioning the GOP’s alliance with the business lobby. “I think the party to some degree has lost its way,” he told me, “and I think this is because of the influence of big money.” He read up on Teddy Roosevelt, and saw himself as an heir to the great progressive who championed regulation and progressive taxes and bolted the GOP because of its alliance with business. McCain wanted to fuse energetic government at home with energetic and activist government abroad.

He also wanted, very badly, to be president. Although he reportedly considered joining the Democratic Party, McCain’s advisors believed he couldn’t win enough support from down-the-line liberals to make it through a Democratic primary. They also recognized the barriers to winning as a third-party candidate. Besides, McCain wanted all along to stay in the GOP and recast the party in the image of his hero.

Remaining competitive for the Republican Party’s 2008 nomination has required McCain to mend fences with the conservatives who savaged him during the 2000 primary season and after. Most of the concessions he has made to the right, though, have been symbolic.

He lavished extravagant praise on President Bush for his leadership in the war on terror, even though McCain criticized most of Bush’s specific decisions, such as letting Osama bin Laden escape and invading Iraq with too few troops. His overtures to Jerry Falwell and his endorsement of “intelligent design” sent friendly signals to conservatives without actually binding McCain to legislative positions if he wins.

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These are, certainly, acts of weaselry. But like I said, I don’t really care. Politicians can always persuade themselves to make small compromises in the pursuit of a larger good. I think McCain has a genuine desire to transform his party and his country, and he’s willing to say things he doesn’t agree with in order to be able to do it.

It’s possible he was lying then and he’s telling the truth now. But why would he? The liberal positions he took during the GOP primaries made him radioactive to the base and killed his campaign. They nearly got him run out of the party he hoped to lead. If he was acting out of expediency, he would have toed the line.

The more pertinent question is, will McCain make specific promises to the right that he can’t weasel out of? His vote to extend the Bush tax cuts he once opposed is a bad sign (though he hasn’t said he’d veto any tax hike). Also, can McCain get through a GOP primary without committing himself to a series of litmus tests? Will he surround himself with conventional right-wing staff?

I suspect that if he emerges victorious from the primaries, he will have had to shed many of his ideals. It’s not attractive. On the other hand, it’s better than a Republican who didn’t have to sell his soul to get the nomination. I’d prefer somebody who’s uncomfortable in Karl Rove’s Republican Party to somebody who genuinely likes it.

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