There was a point, a couple of personas ago, at which John McCain didn’t mind showing some leadership skills on matters pertaining to public health
March 27, 2008

There was a point, a couple of personas ago, at which John McCain didn’t mind showing some leadership skills on matters pertaining to public health. It’s what led him to work with John Edwards on a Patients’ Bill of Rights (which he has since given up on) and, for many years, support efforts to crack down on the tobacco industry.

But as is too often the case, the new McCain has little use for the positions taken by the old McCain. (thanks to A.B. for the heads-up)

Ten years ago, Senator John McCain took on the tobacco industry, saying he would never back down from legislation to regulate the industry. He also supported a $1.10-per-pack tax on cigarettes to fund programs to cut underage smoking. “I still regret we did not succeed,” he said as recently as last October.

Now, McCain’s longtime effort to crack down on tobacco is being put to a new test. Within weeks, the Senate is expected to vote on legislation to allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco. McCain agreed months ago to cosponsor the current bill with Senator Edward M. Kennedy, but McCain’s policy adviser said the senator won’t commit to voting for it until he sees the final legislation.

McCain has also dropped his support for increasing cigarette taxes. Last year, McCain voted against legislation that would have used a 61-cents-per-pack tax to expand a children’s health program.

On the Hill and in policy circles, McCain was known as one of the “good guys” in the Republican caucus on this issue. The tobacco industry hated him, his fellow GOP lawmakers knew he’d vote with Dems on regulation, and public-health advocates came to see him as a reliable ally.

And then McCain decided he wanted to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.

Reading about the crusading McCain in 1998 serves as a stark reminder of how far he’s fallen. At the time, working with the Clinton White House, McCain championed a $1.10-per-pack tax increase, insisting that it would prevent illnesses and provide resources for public health programs.

The industry ended up spending an estimated $40 million to defeat the bill, one of the most expensive campaigns against a piece of legislation at the time, with McCain as the primary target.

“Is there anybody left in Washington who thinks that the McCain Tobacco Tax Bill is all about kids? . . . Contact your member of Congress now and tell them you oppose the McCain Tobacco Tax,” said a typical newspaper advertisement, paid for by Philip Morris and several other tobacco companies.

In response, McCain barred tobacco lobbyists from his office, and fought Republicans to pass the tax increase. Appearing on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on April 21, 1998, McCain was asked whether he would give up in the face of objections from the Republican leadership. McCain replied, “Never.”

A month later, with the measure on the Senate floor, McCain upbraided the tobacco industry for its opposition to his tax proposal: “They have sacrificed the truth and our children to their greed.”

That was a decade ago. Now, McCain opposes a $0.61-per-pack tax increase, won’t commit to supporting a regulation bill he’s co-sponsoring, and has hired Philip Morris’ former lobbyist as his senior campaign adviser.

I suspect there are some people who still have positive impressions of McCain, shaped by his work on issues like these. It’s time for these folks to realize that this simply isn’t the same John McCain.

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