After the Flips, Will McCain Flop?

Posted: Mar 02, 2006 5:08 PM

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, has been busily repairing or replacing his positions on two key GOP issues: abortion and tax cuts.

His actions in the last month were aimed at ending estranged relations with two powerful constituencies in his party's base: economic and social conservatives, who, at best, view him with some suspicion or, at worst, do not trust him to defend their most deeply held beliefs.

His vote to extend some of President Bush's tax cuts, after opposing them for years, and a remark supporting the repeal of Roe v. Wade, may have eased relations with both groups. But they also raised troubling questions about the depth of his convictions.

Here's the story:

McCain voted last month to continue Bush's tax cuts on capital gains and dividends, among other tax cuts contained in a $70 billion Tax Relief Extension Reconciliation Act, now in a House-Senate conference.

But his vote was a sharp reversal of his anti-tax-cut posture that came at a time when he has been courting economic conservatives who fear that, as president, he would oppose further tax cuts and might even roll back Bush's tax reductions to shrink the budget deficits.

Indeed, as welcome as it was, his vote only deepened the measure of distrust among many conservatives who said he did it solely for political reasons, not because of any deeply held beliefs that tax cuts spur growth.

"It's a big flip-flop, but I'm happy that he's flopped," said Grover Norquist, the Americans for Tax Reform president and tax-cut crusader.

But Norquist says McCain still has to prove his tax-cut is bona fide. "He has two years to convince people this is not a political ploy but a road to Damascus" change in his fundamental beliefs, he told me.

Other supply-siders who fought the tax-cut battles alongside Ronald Reagan were similarly distrustful of McCain's flip-flop.

"It looks political to me. It runs counter to his whole past behavior. He's got to appeal to the [conservative] base of the party, because I don't think there is a Republican in the land who can get the nomination [voting] against the tax cuts," said veteran economic strategist Larry Hunter, a senior fellow at the Policy Institute for Innovation.

At the heart of this suspicion about McCain's motives is the belief he is not a Reaganite on tax-cut issues, which are at the core of the GOP's agenda. "He's a conservative on some things and not on others. He's certainly not a supply-sider," Hunter said. "He doesn't subscribe to the Reagan economic approach that tax cuts stimulate increased growth."

Critics point to the fact that when Bush's $1.35 trillion tax-cut bill came up for a final vote in the spring of 2001, as the economy showed signs of slipping, McCain was one of two Senate Republicans to vote against it. His reason: "So many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans ..." He opposed Bush's $350 billion tax bill in 2003, when the economy was really in trouble, because he said he was "very concerned about the deficit." Although this year's deficit is much larger than it was back then, he finally voted "aye" for tax cuts that, while good for the economy, will help a lot of upper-income investors, too.

A statement released by McCain's office explaining his switch said the Arizonan was concerned about "the leveling of some key economic indicators such as real GDP growth rates."

Meantime, McCain is also trying to improve his relations with social and religious conservatives who have long harbored suspicions about his commitment to the pro-life cause.

Those suspicions were deepened when he made it clear in his 2000 presidential campaign that he was opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortions.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, he said, "In the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force x number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations."

But when asked in a January interview on "The CBS Early Show" whether he saw the high court banning abortions one day, McCain said, "I've never agreed with Roe v. Wade, so it wouldn't bother me any."

That flat-out remark seemed so at odds with his previous dance around the issue that it smacked of politics pure and simple. The National Right to Life Committee, when asked to comment, said nothing.

Matching one's views to the party's positions is hardly a new campaign tactic in presidential politics, but if those views lack conviction or smack of political opportunism, they can be deadly. John McCain has two years of Senate votes to prove to his skeptics that he really believes what he says.