John McCain is being pummeled by the national media for supposedly
abandoning his maverick "Straight Talk Express" ways to pander to
Critics haven't bothered to explain exactly how one becomes the Republican
nominee to be president without appealing to Republican primary voters, who
tend to be conservative.
But what about the charge, that McCain is abandoning his core essence in
his quest to become president?
Presumably there is nothing wrong with McCain going to conservatives and
saying, Look, here's who I am. I think you should think better of me than
The only possible reason to criticize McCain for doing that is if appealing
to conservatives is per se a sin, which undoubtedly some of McCain's
disillusioned media critics regard it as being.
The hypocrisy would be if McCain is changing who he is to appeal to
conservatives, or misrepresenting himself to them.
There are two items most frequently cited to make the claim that McCain is
engaged in political hypocrisy: that he voted against the Bush tax cuts but
is now supporting their extension; and that he has agreed to speak to Jerry
Falwell's Liberty University after sharply criticizing him during the 2000
There are two respectable strands of economic conservatism. The
growth-oriented strand, often (regrettably) called supply-side, holds that
the most important thing in fiscal policy is for the government to remove
disincentives to productive economic behavior, such as work, thrift and
investment. The other holds that the most important thing is for the
federal government to stop deficit spending.
Prior to running for president, McCain was a conventional supporter of
Reaganomics, which gave priority to removing disincentives to productive
economic behavior. When McCain ran for president, however, he gave priority
to reducing the deficit. In opposing the Bush tax cuts, he also indulged in
redistributionist sentiments at odds with his previous support of Reagan's
Now, there is a perfectly respectable economic argument as to why even
those who initially opposed the Bush tax cuts should support their
extension. As former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, a McCain economic icon,
has pointed out, the lower rates have now become a part of investor
expectations. Disrupting them would have adverse economic consequences.
It's doubtful, however, that this is a full explanation of McCain's support
for extending Bush's tax cuts. On economic issues, he seems a bit at sea.
That, however, hardly constitutes an abandonment of core principles to gain
McCain's speech after the South Carolina primary, in which he denounced
Falwell and Pat Robertson, was odd and unnecessarily politically injurious,
given that McCain has, throughout his political career, generally supported
social conservative causes. While McCain tried to be targeted in his
criticism, his remarks were widely taken as an attack on the influence of
social conservatives generally in Republican politics.
Now, there are those in the national media who believe that social
conservatives should be politically ostracized. That's why they want to
regard McCain's speech denouncing Falwell and others as part of his core
rather than as an aberration, giving vent to his wrath over tactics used
against him in South Carolina.
Social conservatives, however, are a quarter to a third of the electorate,
too big to be politically ostracized, particularly by a candidate with a
voting record generally agreeable to them.
It's remarkable that the national media are fretting that McCain has
abandoned his maverick ways, given what issue is center stage nationally
and McCain's role in it. Leading the fight to give legal status to illegal
immigrants and allow a lot more low-skilled immigrants into the country
each year with a pathway to citizenship is hardly pandering to the populist
conservative base in the Republican Party.
Some are saying that the national media are just discovering that McCain
is, gasp, a conservative. But that's not quite right either.
Conservatives tend to have a priori principles that guide their positions
on issues. McCain does not appear to approach issues this way. Instead, he
seems to be an instinctual politician, with unpredictable results.
McCain hardly seems to be hiding this from conservatives. While he is
courting them, he's also pushing not only for a liberal immigration policy,
but also for more government regulation of political speech and caps on
domestic production of greenhouse gases.
Instead, McCain appears to want conservatives to know him better and find
him more acceptable. He probably hopes that, faced with the prospect of
President Hillary, they will find him a lot lovelier.
That's not a bad bet. And it's not pandering; it's selling.