Appraising McCain

Ever since Sen. John McCain ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 against then–Gov. George W. Bush, he's been the Democrats' favorite Republican. McCain championed campaign finance reform, an issue Democrats pushed into law over GOP objections. He was thought to be in the running for Sen. John Kerry's vice-presidential nominee and defended Kerry against a recent ad criticizing Kerry's Vietnam service.

But McCain -- who Democrats once hoped would pull a Jim Jeffords (by leaving the Republican Party) or a Zell Miller (by remaining in his party but acting like he's a member of the other party) -- has also been a loyal Republican. Campaigning with George W. Bush in Florida earlier this month, he said Bush has “earned our admiration and our love,” according to CongressDaily. McCain also plans to speak during primetime at the Republican National Convention in a few weeks.

All of the attention has been great for McCain, who has become the darling of both parties. A frequent guest on television shows, McCain is seen as a credible, articulate straight shooter. And it's never hurt an ego to be considered the most popular guy on campus. As a result, he's become untouchable in the sense that neither party thinks it can afford to alienate or even criticize him.

Numerous Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and even Kerry in his Boston acceptance speech last month, keep touting their friendships with McCain to hitch themselves to his popularity and to show that they're bipartisan. But they also need to recognize that McCain is never going to join their ranks, and that, in the presidential election, he's working for everything they're working against.

Even though Bush treated him abominably in the South Carolina primary in 2000 and didn't invite him to the campaign finance bill signing in March 2002, McCain is helping Bush by campaigning with him in such swing states as New Hampshire and Washington this year. But it's not as though Bush is throwing more than kisses McCain's way. A release posted on Bush's campaign Web site this month knocking Kerry's energy record quotes a 2003 statement from National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Executive Vice President Michael Baroody on the Climate Stewardship Act. McCain co-sponsored the bill, which Kerry supported. “To even consider the growth-stifling, command-and-control mandates in Lieberman-McCain while our economy still struggles to create jobs is unfathomable, really,” Baroody said. So even while Bush talks about how “honored” he is to be with McCain on the campaign trail, he's allowing criticism of him in other places.

McCain, for his part, has not responded in kind. The military veteran taped an ad for Bush saying the president “has led with great moral clarity and firm resolve” during a difficult time. It's hard to believe that moral clarity includes using trumped-up intelligence to send Americans' sons and daughters into a war zone, something McCain knows about all too well.

I've interviewed McCain several times and like him; he's an amiable man and I admire the courage he displayed in Vietnam. I applaud the fact that he's willing to work with lawmakers across party lines, a gesture that's already become all too rare among Hill Republicans. But it's unrealistic for him and for Democrats to think he can continue to straddle the middle any longer. Democratic efforts to embrace him in the hopes that he'll return the hug and bring some votes to the Democratic Party are a waste of time. He's clearly chosen sides, and he didn't choose their side.

There's another reason Democrats need to stop chasing McCain: He's tainting his “straight-talk” reputation by stumping for Bush. Sure, backing his party's leader may win McCain points among the Arizona Republican base, whose support he needs to win reelection to the Senate this fall. It may also help him get back into the good graces of the party establishment, whom he angered four years ago by running against Bush. But by appearing alongside a man whose policies often clash with his own, McCain is putting political expediency above political honesty. And that's not anything Democrats need to embrace.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.

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