Saving John McCain

Robert Novak

6/11/2001 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush, John McCain and their wives had an amiable White House dinner last Tuesday night that made modest progress toward halting Sen. McCain's headlong lurch to the Left. Important Republican friends are desperate to find an anchor to keep him content within his lifelong party of choice. Republican politicians who backed McCain for president in 2000 hope Social Security reform could bring him and President Bush together. That issue was not mentioned over dinner Tuesday, but the maverick senator reaffirmed support for the administration against pork barrel spending in the newly Democratic Senate. McCain has urged Republican supporters to disregard news accounts (originated by his own political advisers) that he may follow Sen. James Jeffords out of the GOP. Nevertheless, McCain is being re-invented. In recent weeks, he unfurled the liberal Democratic banner on taxes, gun control and health care. The reasons are not ideological. Nearly everything John McCain does is personal. His evolution from conventional Republicanism was triggered by his involvement in the 1989 Keating Five scandal. Determined to erase the stain on his honor, he became a zealot for campaign finance reform, from which wider apostasy stemmed. He grew estranged from the Senate Republican establishment. Friends say he has contempt for Sen. Mitch McConnell, GOP nemesis of campaign finance reform, and does not think much better of Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott. Alienation was accelerated by still smarting wounds suffered in the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary. McCain has found a much more congenial atmosphere with the likes of Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a rising Democratic star. Edwards calls himself a moderate but is really a straight-line liberal. Amid frequent conversations with such Democrats, Arizonan McCain's Senate votes are starting to echo liberal Republicans from New England, where conservative is a bad word. The McCain who in 1993 assailed Hillary Clinton's health care plan as "Kafkaesque" is allied with liberal Democrats in supporting Hillary Care components. He joined Sen. Charles Schumer of New York in introducing a prescription drug bill and Edwards, a multi-millionaire trial lawyer, in sponsoring an HMO reform benefiting trial lawyers. Most remarkable is his transformation on gun rights. Rating his congressional candidacies, the National Rifle Association (NRA) gave McCain "A" in 1982, "A+" in '84, "A+" in '86, "A" in '92 and "A" in '98. But when the NRA attacked him in last year's New Hampshire primary over campaign finance reform, their relationship crashed. McCain now sponsors a gun-show inspection bill nearly identical to a 1999 measure he voted against. McCain's recent vote against the Bush tax bill spoiled a perfect supply-side record. He had opposed not only Bill Clinton's but also the senior George Bush's tax increases and voted for Clinton-opposed tax cuts. Considering that background, nobody was prepared for McCain's 2000 campaign rhetoric attacking Bush for giving tax relief to the rich. According to sources inside the campaign, he was following the advice of consultants who cited public opinion polls. Indeed, say McCain's Capitol Hill allies, he is constantly agitated by his 2000 brain trust: former Sen. Warren Rudman, campaign consultant John Weaver, Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute and William Kristol of The Weekly Standard. They give McCain the impression that the Bush presidency is a sinking ship from which he should stay distant as he keeps his powder dry for 2004. Tuesday's dinner, the senator's first contact with the president since the Inauguration, followed advice to the White House from McCain's Senate friends but was scheduled only after the Jeffords defection. "It was very congenial," McCain told me. "I had forgotten how effective he (the president) can be on a one-on-one basis." The senator said he offered help on military reform, and that they talked about runaway spending in the newly Democratic Senate. The word in Senate GOP circles: McCain will take on Sen. Robert Byrd, the king of pork and now Appropriations chairman. Social Security did not come up, but congressional allies want McCain as Bush's field commander for reforming the system. "I'm very interested in it," said McCain. A senior Bush aide, however, told me the senator is "against us on Social Security." That's wrong. He shares Bush's views. John McCain has not yet abandoned the conservative cause on everything.