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The New (Less Interesting) John McCain

By E. J. Dionne

WASHINGTON -- In April 2004, I put in a call to John McCain's office to see if he would respond to a group of House Republicans who had attacked his fellow Vietnam veteran, John Kerry.

In a preview of coming assaults, the Republicans accused Kerry of, among other things, ``aiding and abetting the enemy'' by coming to oppose the war in Vietnam where Kerry had earned so many medals.

McCain's spokesman at the time said he doubted his boss would want to get into the controversy. But within an hour or so, McCain called back to denounce the attacks on Kerry. ``He's my friend. He'll continue to be my friend,'' McCain said. ``I know his service was honorable. If that hurts me politically or with my party, that's a very small price to pay.''

That was McCain the Maverick who has won much affection outside the ranks of his own party. McCain the Maverick fought for campaign-finance reform, took global warming seriously, opposed Bush's tax cuts and spoke out against torture.

Those positions bred mistrust in McCain's own party, even though he was always a staunch supporter of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, a firm opponent of pork-barrel spending, an abortion foe and an advocate of private accounts carved out of Social Security.

McCain's problem is that political parties very rarely nominate mavericks, and McCain has decided the only way he'll ever be president is as the Republican nominee. So today he cares very much about what hurts him or helps him in his own party.

The most flagrant sign of this was his February vote to continue Bush's dividends and capital gains tax cuts that he once eloquently opposed. ``It's a big flip-flop,'' one-time McCain foe Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told The Washington Times' Donald Lambro, ``but I'm happy that he's flopped.''

Those of us who defended McCain in the days when the likes of Norquist were attacking him do see the Arizona Republican's new position as a major flop. But so what? Norquist has more power in Republican primaries than McCain's old base among pundits and reporters. Whenever a liberal turns on McCain these days, the senator's supporters gleefully e-mail the criticism to conservative activists as a sign of their man's true faith.

The prevailing view among McCain's lieutenants -- it's also the conventional political view -- is that since the main obstacle to his nomination in 2008 comes from the right and from Bush partisans, McCain's main task is to appease the right and make nice with Bush on issues (such as Iraq) where McCain actually agrees with the president. Liberal attacks can be ignored since most liberals will eventually vote against McCain anyway. There will be plenty of time after he's nominated for McCain to don his maverick apparel again for the benefit of moderates and independents.

All terribly logical, but it's a more dangerous strategy than it seems. McCain's central appeal, even to people who disagree with him, has always been his willingness to do the nonpolitical thing -- for example, to defend Kerry that day in 2004 simply because he thought the attacks on Kerry were wrong. If McCain spends the next two years obviously positioning himself to win Republican primary votes, he will start to look like just another politician. Once lost, a maverick's image is hard to earn back.

Moreover, McCain is winning a hearing from previously reluctant Republicans as the one person who might save the party if Bush's popularity continues to sink. But if McCain gets too close to Bush in the next two years, he will no longer have his independence as a selling point. And if Bush should make a comeback, a lot of Republicans flirting with McCain now out of necessity will happily abandon him for someone more to their liking.

Republican and Democratic friends alike object that this analysis is based on a misunderstanding: McCain's non-conservative, non-Republican sympathizers, they argue, have always overrated his progressive credentials. It's time to face the fact that McCain really is a conservative Republican and stop hoping he's something else.

Perhaps that's good advice, but I still don't regret opining back in 1996 that Bob Dole should pick McCain as his running mate. ``Maybe the political climate is too quarrelsome and unforgiving to permit someone as interesting as McCain to get on a national ticket,'' I wrote then. ``But that would be a shame.''

In light of his current strategy, McCain seems to have decided that our even more quarrelsome and unforgiving political climate requires him to be less interesting and more conventional than he used to be. Call me naive, but I think that's a shame, too.

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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