United States

BETTER THAN BUSH

Suddenly, Republicans have a lot more time for Senator John McCain

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE October 17 2005
United States

BETTER THAN BUSH

Suddenly, Republicans have a lot more time for Senator John McCain

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE October 17 2005

BETTER THAN BUSH

Suddenly, Republicans have a lot more time for Senator John McCain

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

United States

FOR A BRIEF and heady time in 2000, it looked like war hero John McCain would ride his “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus straight to the top of the Republican presidential ticket. Then his campaign crashed— he attacked two televangelists as “forces of evil,” among other intemperate moments— and by last year, conservatives thought him such a maverick they hardly blinked when he was mentioned as a possible running mate to Democratic nominee John Kerry.

But now the Republican power base is beginning to wonder about George W. Bush. Federal spending and the deficit have exploded, and the President is promising hundreds of billions more to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Adding insult to conservative injury, Bush was handed two openings on the Supreme Court, but shied away from appointing a judge with an established conservative record. Discontent has reached such a pitch that at a recent press conference, Bush was asked if he is “still a conservative.” Suddenly, John McCain, a self-described “pro-life, pro-family fiscal conservative and advocate of a strong defence,” is beginning to look a whole lot better to those Republicans who want, more than anything else, smaller government and anti-abortion judges. And the Arizona senator, who is eyeing the 2008 presidential bid, is seizing the moment to engage in a quiet rapprochement.

The delicate courtship was on display last month when McCain was the honoured guest at the Saturday Night Club—a periodic dinner date of conservative opinion-makers hosted by R. Emmett Tyrrell, the editor of The American Spectator magazine. Over osso bucco in Georgetown, some 40 guests, including columnists and bloggers, grilled the senator, who spoke of the need to tame the deficit, to postpone Bush’s costly prescription drug plan, and to scale back a lavish transportation bill passed by the Republican Congress. He also offered to campaign on behalf of a law pushed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would require unions to obtain written permission from members before spending their dues on political activity. McCain got glowing reviews. “He was extremely vigorous,” says Tyrrell, who did not support McCain in 2000 but is now planning to “put in a good word” for him in his magazine. “I think people are warming up to him.”

If McCain’s star is rising, it’s being lifted by frustration over the explosion of government spending under Bush—in areas from the Iraq war to social entitlements, agriculture, transportation and energy. “Both Houses of Congress have been very lax and the President has been lax, and John has been serious about it,” said Tyrrell. Bush has declined to veto a single spending bill passed by the Republican Congressincluding those bloated by record numbers of “pork” projects slipped in by lawmakers without debate and outside the competitive granting process. The non-partisan group, Citizens Against Government Waste, documented a record 13,997 pork projects passed in the fiscal year 2005—at a cost of US$27.3 billion. And that did not include the highway bill passed this summer which featured the infamous US$223million “bridge to nowhere,” with a span nearly that of the Golden Gate Bridge, to connect a small Alaskan town to an island of 50 people.

Combined with the Bush tax cuts (which conservatives support), spending has driven the federal deficit to a projected US$333 billion this year. A plan to cut that number in half flew out the window after the White House estimated that Gulf Coast reconstruction could eventually cost the federal treasury some US$200 billion. “It’s going to cost whatever it costs,” shrugged Bush. But many in his power base were fuming. “Katrina is the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” says Grover Norquist, head of the influential lobby group Americans for Tax Reform. “You will be able to say three years from now, ‘Boy, was that a turning point.’ ” Meanwhile, McCain has been “the single most vocal opponent of pork-barrel spending for more than a decade now,” says Chris Edwards, an economist at the Cato Institute, a Washingtonbased free-market think tank.

EXPLODING government spending is a flashpoint. ‘Both Houses of Congress have been very lax, and the President has been lax, and John has been serious about it.’

And it’s not just pork. When Bush earned

the scorn of many fiscal hawks by pushing for one of the biggest expansions of social spending in recent times—a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients expected to cost US$1.2 trillion over the next 10 years—McCain was one of only nine Senate Republicans to vote against it, arguing it should be limited to low-income seniors.

Social conservatives are finding a friend in McCain too. Faced with the historic chance to replace crucial swing voter Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court, Bush chose his White House counsel, Harriet Miers—a former Democrat and donor to the Al Gore campaign, who lacks the clear track record of the conservative legal philosophy the President had promised. It’s all giving Gary Bauer an “I told you so” moment. The head of the social conservative lobby group, American Values, he was one of the few Christian conservative leaders to endorse McCain in 2000 after himself dropping out of the race. The reason? He told The New Yorker magazine that he asked both McCain and Bush whether they would appoint pro-life candidates to the top court. Bush said he had no litmus test. McCain simply said yes.

McCain still has much work to do to convince hard-core conservatives he is one of them. He’s been pushing for reductions in greenhouse gases, and this summer he joined Senator Hillary Clinton in Alaska and the Yukon to investigate global warming. He has co-sponsored legislation with Senator Ted Kennedy to legalize some undocumented immigrants. While he supported the decision to go to war in Iraq, he has blasted the generals on their failure to quell the insurgency, and has been a leading critic of American treatment of detainees. And there is no underestimating the grudge that GOP activists bear for the strict regulations on campaign contributions he managed to impose with the McCain-Feingold law.

Grover Norquist, a long-time foe of the senator, predicts that in 2008 conservatives will turn to an experienced governor with a proven record on spending, such as Jeb Bush of Florida or Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who has repeatedly vetoed spending bills passed by a Republican legislature. Cato’s Chris Edwards agrees, adding Virginia’s senator and former governor George Allen to the list. GOP pollster Whit Ayres says conservative Republicans are still waiting to be convinced by McCain. “He has taken some steps, but he has not yet closed the sale,” he says. One thing does seem certain—angst over feelings that Bush has betrayed conservatives is likely to shape the race for the Republican nomination in 2008.