John McCain: a man in full

Vanity Fair has a 10,000-word-or-so profile of John McCain up on its website here. That's more than enough material to give fans and foes something to cherry-pick. Like this 3,000-worder from The Washington Post back in 2004, this latest piece will probably do more to confirm readers' impressions than to alter them. Regardless, the subject is compelling.

McCain allows reporters tremendous access, which over the years has tended to pay off in favorable coverage. But it also makes the cherry-picking easier if you're looking to catch him in an un-edited moment. In this piece, writer Todd Purdum made the most of his access and shows McCain in a range of light, from glowing to dark. What struck me, though, is how hard Purdum, the magazine's national editor and a former New York Times reporter, works to fit McCain inside a box. The headline -- "Prisoner of Conscience" -- is an appropriate one, for Purdum seems to have decided that McCain, famously a prisoner of war four decades ago, is again trapped: this time by the belief that he needs to make himself more appealing to the right wing of the Republican Party than he would be if were being true to himself.

Purdum writes: "The biggest questions of all are whether, by forcing himself to become some kind of something he just isn't, John McCain can win the presidency to begin with, and would he consider himself to be worthy of the honor if he did." Purdum, it seems to me, leaves open the answer to the first question -- can McCain win? -- but has decided the answer to the second question is No.

Leave aside the chutzpah factor -- the profile writer throwing his subject on the couch and delivering his diagnosis. What the piece seems to add up to, at least on a first read, is an assertion that John McCain, circa 1999-2000, really was what the political mythology says: the truth-telling, independent, even post-partisan figure who deserved to defeat George W. Bush not only in New Hampshire but in the rest of the presidential campaign as well. Further, that the pandering McCain, circa 2006-07, is a phoney and (here's the kicker) that he hates himself for it. The implication is that if McCain only knew himself as well as his profiler has come to know him, he would see the torture -- reference intended -- he is inflicting upon himself.

And then what? It's not clear. Perhaps Purdum just wants to say it's better to be authentic and drop your ambition than to pursue your ambition inauthentically. Perhaps it would take another 10,000 words to describe how it's not too late for McCain to return to the "Straight Talk" of 2000, to once again be one of Abraham Lincoln's "better angels." Regardless, Purdum liked the McCain he saw as more liberal better, and Purdum believes McCain liked himself better when he was more liberal.

This is neither the first nor the last time you will read that John McCain used to be more liberal, or that he really is more liberal. You'll read that from left-leaning people who liked McCain seven years ago but don't want him to win now. You'll read it from right-leaning people who didn't like McCain then and/or don't want him to win now.

What I remember reading in early 2000 (I edited the Sunday Monitor on whose front page it appeared) was a story by Ann Marimow that began like this:

"Arizona Sen. John McCain's lifetime voting record is more conservative than that of New Hampshire's Judd Gregg, yet in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, conservative groups and Union Leader editorials have tagged McCain a Democrat. For 17 years, in the House and Senate, McCain has never voted for a tax increase; he's advocated a strong national defense and a permanent ban on internet taxes; and he's consistently voted the pro-life line. Yet on the campaign trail, the issue he's made the centerpiece of nearly 90 town hall meetings -- changing campaign finance laws -- is one most conservatives vigorously oppose. . . .

"The question is how to reconcile McCain's conservative voting record with his leadership on issues, such as campaign finance reform and anti-tobacco legislation, that most Republicans believe are inconsistent with conservative principles.

"He has a solid conservative voting record, with a handful of exceptions,'' said Grover Norquist, who serves on the board of the American Conservative Union, which publishes annual conservative ratings. "My unhappiness with him is driven by his main issue . . . but he's not a liberal, no, no." [UPDATE: Here's a link to the whole story.]

Which is to say, there were then, and are now, reasons to vote for John McCain and reasons to vote against him. (I happen to share Norquist 's distaste for campaign finance reform, even if for me the defense of political speech should not be trivialized as a liberal or conservative stance.) But it makes too much of his decision to speak at Jerry Falwell's college campus to suggest that McCain has fundamentally changed, or that he has sacrificed what was his essential nature. He wasn't that much of a saint then, and he's not that much of a sinner now.

As for whether he has imprisoned himself in something that's not really him, I'm not going to venture my own diagnosis. I will note that he is an elected official -- a senator, no less -- and that ideological flexibility, while often criticized, comes with the territory. I also go back to that story from 2000, when McCain told Marimow he "was surprised to learn his lifetime conservative rating" from the ACU was only 86 percent. "If you take out votes on campaign finance and tobacco, he said, his overall record would be about 95 percent." (Through 2005, the ACU gives him a lifetime score of 83.)

Remember, on the Purdum timeline, that was the authentic, liberated McCain talking.

ANOTHER VIEW: The Fix calls the Vanity Fair piece "at times revelatory," adding: "Purdum gets at the fundamental question/problem of McCain's candidacy: How much can a man whose entire life has been centered on bucking the rules bend to the orthodoxies required to become the nominee of the Republican Party?" The question/problem notwithstanding, McCain is listed as the GOP frontrunner.


Clinton, Obama on the record

The Washington Post found 40 Senate roll-call votes where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were on opposite sides. Bottom line: "The Senate has held 645 roll-call votes during their shared tenure, and more than 90 percent of the time the two senators stood with other Democrats. They opposed John G. Roberts Jr.'s nomination as chief justice, supported increased funding for embryonic stem cell research and backed the same nonbinding measure that urged President Bush to plan for a gradual troop withdrawal from Iraq.

"But other votes reveal important differences between the Democratic rivals that distinguish them as they prepare to launch their anticipated candidacies. The areas of dispute include energy policy, congressional ethics and budget priorities, relations with Cuba, gun ownership, and whether a senator can hold a second job."

UPDATE: The Washington Times editorial page looks at not only Sens. Clinton and Obama, but Sens. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and John Kerry as well, and has trouble telling them apart:

"Each opposed the reconciliation bill that extended the reduced tax rates on capital gains and dividends for two years through 2010. Each was among the 41 senators who sustained a filibuster against a bill that would have permanently repealed the estate tax. All five were among the 30 Democratic senators opposing a constitutional amendment banning desecration of the flag; the amendment, which required a two-thirds majority, was defeated by a single vote. Each supported a bill allowing the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. All five joined 37 other senators in sustaining a filibuster against an abortion-related parental-notification bill. The five Democrats also voted in unison against the military-tribunals bill, which passed by a 65-34 margin, including 12 Democrats. All five supported a bill, which was defeated 60-39, that endorsed the phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq beginning in 2006. All five voted for an immigration-overhaul bill that would have effectively granted amnesty and provided a path toward citizenship for a large majority of the estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the United States. All five opposed Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court." [bold added to highlight issues]


Rudy's money trail

This New York Daily News story reports on a leaked document regarding Rudy Giuliani's campaign plans. The most interesting part of the story lists people whom Rudy & Co. apparently hoped to hit up for big bucks but who have since signed on with others, most often John McCain.


What, no parting gifts?

This New York Post columnist is even harsher in his adieu to George Pataki than David Yepsen was to Tom Vilsack.


Edwards makes it official

"The biggest responsibility of the next president of the United States is to re-establish America's leadership role in the world, starting with Iraq. And we need to make it clear that we intend to leave Iraq and turn over the responsibility of Iraq to the Iraqi people. The best way to make that clear is to actually start leaving, which is why I've said we ought to be taking 40,000 to 50,000 troops out now, and that ought to continue over time."

John Edwards, announcing his presidential candidacy this morning. The full transcript is here.


Whose campaign is it anyway?

In our bulk e-mail today, from Bob Kunst, president of Hillarynow.com:

"As I prepare for my operation on Friday morning, and nerves in motion about it, I wanted to let you know what I sent to Hillary and Bill on Nov. 15, 2006, but have a feeling that their staffs have ignored to the detriment of Hillary, as well as myself. Not even a note to wish me well in the hospital speaks volumes after giving over 40 months of full time activism that she has only benefited from.

"So I wanted to let you know what I wrote and to judge for yourselves. As the 'expert' in the field, who has taken so many abuses for even suggesting, let alone supporting Hillary, I know, without any competition, that this campaign particularly has to be extraordinary in order to pull it off. It has to sizzle and have a trust factor with the bar raised very high and much higher than anyone will have to undergo. It has to overcome the stardom of a Barack Obama challenge, and the doubters within the Democratic Party and the GOP haters, plus the doubters of a woman president.

"In other words, this can't be 'politics as usual' and certainly not with Hillary's staff too insensitive to care about my well-being let alone to identify with any ideas they don't come up with. Such unprofessionalism, and insensitivity, and lacking in manners, and common courtesy, no matter who they are, will only wreck Hillary's efforts. If this is what the nation can expect from her staff, then Hillary shouldn't even bother. . . ."

It's not about him, though. It's about her. And America.


Obama's view of the world

"Obama's early opposition to the war in Iraq is the best known of his views, but voters taking his measure as a potential president will discover that he is a leader in securing stray weapons from the former Soviet Union, a key backer of American aid to the Congo, and that he would tend to support a missile strike on Iran if other methods fail to get Tehran to abandon its nuclear program."

More, from The New York Sun, here.

UPDATE: Lee Bandy says Democrats in South Carolina really hope Obama runs.


Massachusetts North?

Here's a little holiday tease to some poll results the Monitor will release over the weekend:

It's been suggested that Mitt Romney may, like John Kerry in 2004, enjoy an edge in the 2008 New Hampshire primary because the Boston media have made him more familiar to voters here. Well, I can't give away the details, but the numbers I saw suggest that if Romney is to succeed in New Hampshire, it will be because of persuasion he accomplishes as a candidate in 2007 (that is, when he's no longer governor of Massachusetts), not because he's already a local favorite.

For what it's worth, I'm not sure Kerry's familiarity was such a huge boost either, given how he languished in many 2003 New Hampshire polls and surged only after he went to Iowa, where he was less familiar, and started to win converts -- enough ultimately to win the caucuses. Also, if anyone is the local favorite in the 2008 Republican primary here, it has to be John McCain, for whom many voters here have already voted.

UPDATE: The Monitor's coverage of the poll can be read here and here.

UPDATE II: TNR's The Plank is only too happy to point out that Obama's numbers in the poll leave some egg on Dick Morris's face.


No hometown discount

David Yepsen, the dean of Iowa political reporters, puts some coal in Tom Vilsack's Christmas stocking.


In his own words: Bush on Iraq, war on terror

These are some of the key excerpts from the war portions of President Bush's news conference today:

“We have an obligation to ensure our military is capable of sustaining this war over the long haul and performing the many tasks that we ask of them. . . .

“We enter this new year clear-eyed about the challenges in Iraq and equally clear about our purpose. Our goal remains a free and democratic Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself, and is an ally in this war on terror. . . .

“I’m going to make you this promise: My administration will work with Republicans and Democrats to fashion a new way forward that can succeed in Iraq. We’ll listen to ideas from every corridor. We’ll change our strategy and tactics to meet the realities on the ground. . . .

“We can be smarter about how we deploy our manpower and resources. We can ask more of our Iraqi partners, and we will. . . .

“I want the enemy to understand that this is a tough task, but they can’t run us out of the Middle East; that they can’t intimidate America. They think they can. They think it’s just a matter of time before America grows weary and leaves; abandons the people of Iraq, for example. And that’s not going to happen. . . .

“One of those options, of course, is increasing more troops. But, in order to do so, there must be a specific mission that can be accomplished with more troops. And that’s precisely what our commanders have said, as well as people who know a lot about military operations. And I agree with them; that there’s got to be a specific mission that can be accomplished with the addition of more troops before, you know, I agree on that strategy. . . .

“We must make sure that our military has the capability to stay in the fight for a long period of time. I’m not predicting any particular theater, but I am predicting that it’s going to take a while for the ideology of liberty to finally triumph over the ideology of hate. I know you know I feel this strongly, but I see this – we’re in the beginning of a conflict between competing ideologies; a conflict that will determine whether or not your children can live in peace. Failure in the Middle East, for example, or failure in Iraq or isolationism will condemn a generation of young Americans to permanent threat from overseas. And, therefore, we will succeed in Iraq. And, therefore, we will help young democracies when we find them. . . .

“I know there’s a lot of discussion about troops, and there should be. But you got to keep in mind, we’ve also got to make sure we have a parallel political process and a reconstruction process going together, concurrently with a new military strategy.”

The full transcript is here.


All things Obama . . .

. . . can be found here. Oh look: The site says it's paid for by Obama 2010, Inc. Guess he's not running for president (the links to the "rapturous reception" to the idea notwithstanding).


More on right holes

Following up on Charlie Arlinghaus's discussion of what's missing on the right side of the primary field (see here and here), Doug Lambert suggests Rep. Duncan Hunter of California may be the "real deal." (The interview with Hunter that caught Lambert's attention is here.)


What about Bill?

Richardson, that is. Jonathan Martin writes about his unique mix of political assets and liabilities here. An excerpt:

"He’s pro-gun (one of only four Democratic governors to win the NRA’s endorsement in his reelection bid this year), has cut taxes, and most importantly has been supportive of business while also protecting the land. Such policies have brought ranchers and hunters into the fold, many of them Republicans and conservative-leaning independents, and helped him garner 68 percent of the vote in his reelection bid this year.

"And despite his New England pedigree, Richardson successfully affects the style of the region. He can pull off a cowboy hat and bolo tie and appear in a spaghetti western-style campaign commercial without it looking too forced. He also talks in the direct and occasionally salty manner of the west.

"This style is why, in part, he’s dismissed by many observers. . . . Richardson’s one-on-one abilities are diminished by his inability to mask, for example, showing disinterest when he isn’t interested.

"Appearing with Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean at a post-election press conference in Washington following winning gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia last year, Richardson made no attempt to stifle the urge to make funny faces at staff and friends across the room while Dean was explaining the party’s success from the podium."


Calendar madness

Lee Bandy reports South Carolina is headed toward holding its Democratic primary on Jan. 29, 2008, and then its Republican primary on Feb. 2.


What if Obama didn't run?

John Fund of The Wall Street Journal imagines a speech from Barack Obama that builds to this: "I have decided not to succumb to the hype that others are busy creating around me. That's for Hollywood, not for the serous business of running a country in troubled and dangerous times."