McCain Stand Comes at a Price

Times Staff Writers

Conservative activists are heaping criticism on Sen. John McCain for fighting President Bush over proposed rules for the interrogation of terrorism suspects, a dispute that has reopened long-standing divisions between the maverick Republican lawmaker and his party’s establishment.

The attack from the right, which coalesced over the weekend, could undercut McCain’s effort to woo Bush backers and other party regulars for an anticipated 2008 presidential bid. His position on terrorism prisoners has fueled critics’ skepticism about McCain’s conservative credentials.

“This very definitely is going to put a chilling effect on the tremendous strides he has made in the conservative evangelical community,” said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, one of several conservative activists who support Bush’s proposal on interrogation techniques.


Even as conservative leaders berated McCain for refusing to yield to Bush, the high-profile battle could burnish the Arizonan’s credentials among admirers who have been concerned about his moves to court the GOP establishment.

His aides say McCain’s position in the interrogation dispute is a matter of conscience -- not calculation -- but they still see a political upside.

“When he does the right thing and he knows it, that works out well for him,” said John Weaver, a top political advisor to McCain. “He’s going to see this through.”

The administration took a possible step toward breaking the deadlock late Monday, when it sent a new proposal to Capitol Hill. Details were not immediately available and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a military judge in the Air Force Reserve who is a key McCain ally in the fight, was noncommittal in responding.

“The parties continue to share ideas with each other,” Graham said in a statement.

Referring to the back-and-forth, Graham told reporters, “Have y’all ever bought a car? This is how you buy a car.”

The episode underscores the complexity of McCain’s political position as the perceived front-runner in a potentially crowded field of GOP presidential candidates. He must please the GOP activists who play a big role in choosing the party’s nominee while demonstrating the independent streak that could appeal to moderates in a general election.


As McCain’s profile in the interrogation debate has risen, other potential GOP presidential candidates have weighed in.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, widely seen as a leading competitor for McCain’s centrist appeal, has forcefully endorsed Bush’s position.

“I am foursquare behind President Bush,” Romney said in an interview. “Sen. McCain’s position is mistaken on this issue.”

One key issue is a section of the Geneva Convention, which sets international standards for the treatment of wartime prisoners. Known as Common Article 3, the section bans “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”

Bush says this language is vague and leaves intelligence agents in doubt about whether some of the harsher interrogation tactics they have employed are legal. He has asked Congress to clarify the language.

McCain and his allies say Congress should not unilaterally set a definition or other nations may do the same -- to the detriment of U.S. personnel held captive.


The House is expected to easily approve the White House proposal next week. But in the Senate, McCain is expected to prevail with the support of most Senate Democrats and, according to a GOP leadership aide, at least 11 Republicans.

The dispute between McCain and Bush is especially charged because their competing views are shaped by experiences at the core of their political identities.

For Bush, a revised interrogation policy is an essential tool for what he considers the historic mission of his presidency: waging a global war on terrorism unlike any other struggle the U.S. has confronted.

But McCain sees the debate through the prism of his own defining experience: the torture he endured as a prisoner during the Vietnam War.

The faceoff is the latest chapter in a complicated political relationship. McCain was Bush’s chief rival for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination. During Bush’s first term, McCain was at odds with the White House on major issues, including campaign finance overhaul and the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Last winter, he fought the administration for a measure to ban use of torture in Iraq and elsewhere.

But he campaigned hard for Bush’s reelection in 2004. And McCain has been a notable and loyal ally on Bush’s policy in Iraq.


He has also taken several steps aimed at smoothing relations with conservatives who long have doubted his commitment to their agendas. Most prominently, he delivered the commencement speech this year at Liberty University, a Baptist school in Virginia founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a leader of the Christian conservative movement.

A White House official said Monday that Bush was not personally upset with McCain over the interrogation impasse. But the official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing White House deliberations, said others in the administration were offended by McCain’s criticism last week of CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, who is pushing for the redefinition of the interrogation language.

And the White House has been encouraging conservative activists to defend Bush’s position -- and, by extension, undercut McCain.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a frequent McCain critic, said he and other conservative leaders had been briefed about the flap at the White House in the last week.

Norquist, in an interview Monday, accused McCain of “showboating” and foiling a White House political strategy of framing this year’s midterm elections as a choice between Republicans who support tough treatment of terrorists and Democrats who are standing in the president’s way.

The White House “would like to have a conversation between now and the election about punishing the people who did 9/11,” said Norquist. “McCain is interrupting that conversation and confusing the message.”


Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk show host, charged Monday that McCain was part of a “cabal” in Washington that was “trying to thwart the policies of the Bush administration.”

This weekend, McCain was criticized in an editorial of the Union Leader, an influential conservative newspaper in New Hampshire. The editorial was published Saturday, the day before McCain visited the state, which traditionally hosts the first presidential primary.

“Sen. McCain comes here because he wants to be our next president,” the editorial said. “But the question is being asked, in the midst of the most difficult and challenging war we have ever faced, can the nation afford a President McCain?”

McCain, appearing on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, dismissed the criticism.

“I believe that this has nothing to do with politics,” McCain said. “I tell you very frankly, no matter what the political impact is, this is a matter of conscience.”

Despite the fire from the right, McCain remains in great demand as a campaigner for Republicans facing tough fights for reelection, said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign. On Monday, he headlined a fundraiser in the Connecticut district of Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, one of several GOP House members who depend on strong support from centrists.

“He’s one of the more popular figures out there on the trail,” Forti said. “This is just one controversy.”



Times staff writers Peter Wallsten and Doyle McManus contributed to this report.