In his eternal quest for the Republican presidential nomination, the supposed maverick John McCain has repeatedly reversed long-held positions and compromised purportedly core principles. From the Bush tax cuts, the religious right and immigration reform to overturning Roe v. Wade, proclaiming Samuel Alito a model Supreme Court Justice and bashing France (just to name a few), McCain changed sides as changing political conditions dictated.
But over the past two weeks, McCain's rapid fire, acrobatic flip-flops have produced whiplash, at least for voters. 10 times since the beginning of June, McCain has retreated from, upended or just forgotten positions he once claimed as his own. On Social Security, balancing the budget, defense spending, domestic surveillance and a host of other issues so far this month, McCain's "Straight Talk Express" did a U-turn on the road to the White House.
1. Social Security Privatization. John McCain has apparently learned the lesson that the more President Bush spoke about his Social Security privatization scheme, the less popular it became. On Friday, Mr. Straight Talk proclaimed at a New Hampshire event, "I'm not for, quote, privatizing Social Security. I never have been. I never will be." Sadly, McCain and his advisers like ousted HP CEO Carly Fiorina are on record declaring fidelity to the idea of diverting Social Security dollars into private accounts. On November 18, 2004, for example, McCain announced, "Without privatization, I don’t see how you can possibly, over time, make sure that young Americans are able to receive Social Security benefits." And in March 2003, McCain backed his President, declaring, "As part of Social Security reform, I believe that private savings accounts are a part of it - along the lines that President Bush proposed." As they say, let's go to the videotape.
2. Raising - and Slashing - Defense Spending. As Steve Benen noted Friday, John McCain was also for boosting American defense spending before he was against it. In the November 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, McCain argued "we can also afford to spend more on national defense, which currently consumes less than four cents of every dollar that our economy generates - far less than what we spent during the Cold War." But facing the $2 trillion budgetary hole the McCain tax plan is forecast to produce (a sea of red ink even the Wall Street Journal noticed), Team McCain changed its tune. As Forbes scoffed in amazement:
"McCain’s top economic adviser, Doug Holtz-Eakin, blithely supposes that cuts in defense spending could make up for reducing the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25% and the subsequent shrinkage in federal revenues. Get that? The national security candidate wants to cut spending on our national security. Wait until the generals and the admirals hear that."
3. First Term Balanced Budget Pledge. With its on-again/off-again/on-again promise to balance the budget by January 2013, the McCain campaign executed that rarest of political maneuvers, the 360. During a February 15th rally in La Crosse, Wisconsin, "McCain promised he'd offer a balanced budget by the end of his first term." But just days later, McCain's senior economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin announced a deficit-ending target of 2017. In mid-April, Holtz-Eakin proclaimed, "I would like the next president not to talk about deficit reduction." McCain, too, signaled the retreat from his first-term balance budget commitment, explaining to Chris Matthews on April 15th that "economic conditions are reversed."
Apparently economic conditions have improved dramatically since then. On June 6, Holtz-Eakin squared the circle, announcing, "That plan, when appropriately phased in, as it has always been intended to be, will bring the budget to balance by the end of his first term."
4. The Media's Treatment of Hillary Clinton. No doubt, John McCain suffers from recurring bouts of selective amnesia. And some episodes take only days to manifest themselves. During his disastrous "green screen" speech on June 3, McCain reached out to Hillary Clinton's supporters by proclaiming, "The media often overlooked how compassionately she spoke to the concerns and dreams of millions of Americans, and she deserves a lot more appreciation than she sometimes received." But by June 7, McCain denied to Newsweek that his media critique never passed his lips, "I did not--that was in prepared remarks, and I did not--I'm not in the business of commenting on the press and their coverage or not coverage."
5. The Estate Tax. Just days before his contortionist act on Social Security, John McCain reversed course on the estate tax as well. On June 8, 2006, McCain on the Senate floor expressed his agreement with Teddy Roosevelt that "most great civilized countries have an income tax and an inheritance tax" and "in my judgment both should be part of our system of federal taxation." But after years of battling Republican colleagues dead-set on dismantling the so-called "death tax" and instead promoting a $5 million trigger, on Tuesday John McCain sounded the retreat. Now, he insists, "the estate tax is one of the most unfair tax laws on the books."
6. FISA, Domestic Surveillance and Telecom Immunity. When it comes to the Bush administration's program of domestic spying on Americans, McCain has performed similar logical gymnastics. On December 20, 2007, McCain suggested to the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Charles Savage that President Bush had clearly crossed the line. As Wired's Ryan Singel noted:
"I think that presidents have the obligation to obey and enforce laws that are passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, no matter what the situation is," McCain said. The Globe's Charlie Savage pushed further, asking , "So is that a no, in other words, federal statute trumps inherent power in that case, warrantless surveillance?" To which McCain answered, "I don't think the president has the right to disobey any law."
But on June 2, McCain adviser Holtz-Eakin put that notion to rest, telling the National Review:
"[N]either the Administration nor the telecoms need apologize for actions that most people, except for the ACLU and the trial lawyers, understand were Constitutional and appropriate in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001."
Pressed to explain the glaring inconsistencies, John McCain on June 6 played dumb, deciding that cowardice is the better part of valor. As the New York Times reported, McCain now believes the legality of Bush's regime of NSA domestic surveillance is unclear and, in any event, is old news:
"It’s ambiguous as to whether the president acted within his authority or not," he said, saying courts had ruled different ways on the matter. “I’m not interested in going back. I’m interested in addressing the challenge we face to day of trying to do everything we can to counter organizations and individuals that want to destroy this country. So there’s ambiguity about it. Let’s move forward."
As for immunity for the telecommunications firms cooperating with the White House in what before August 2007 was doubtless illegal surveillance, there too McCain's position has evolved. On May 23, campaign surrogate Chuck Fish announced that McCain would not back retroactive immunity "unless there were revealing Congressional hearings and heartfelt repentance from those telephone and internet companies." Subsequently, the McCain campaign swiftly backtracked, claiming its man supports immunity unconditionally.
7. Restoring the Everglades. On June 5, John McCain traveled to the Everglades to win over Floridians and environmentally-minded voters. There he proclaimed, "I am in favor of doing whatever's necessary to save the Everglades." Sadly, as ThinkProgress documented, McCain not only opposed $2 billion in funding for the restoration of the Everglades national park, he backed President Bush's veto of the legislation in 2007. "I believe," he said, "that we should be passing a bill that will authorize legitimate, needed projects without sacrificing fiscal responsibility."
8. Divestment from South Africa. During his June 2 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), John McCain called for the international community to target Iran for the kind of worldwide sanctions regime applied to apartheid-era South Africa. Unfortunately, McCain's lobbyist-advisers Charlie Black and Rick Davis each represented firms doing business with Tehran. Even more unfortunate, John McCain was frequently not among those offering "moral clarity and conviction" in backing "a divestment campaign against South Africa, helping to rid that nation of the evil of apartheid." As ThinkProgress detailed:
Despite voting to override President Reagan’s veto of a bill imposing economic sanctions against South Africa in 1986, McCain voted against sanctions on at least six other occasions.
9. Fighting Job Losses in Michigan. During the run-up to the Michigan primary, John McCain cautioned workers there in January that he didn't want to raise "false hopes that somehow we can bring back lost jobs," adding that it" wasn't government's job to protect buggy factories and haberdashers when cars replaced carriages and men stopped wearing hats." But after getting trounced in Michigan by Mitt Romney and watching the economy deteriorate further, McCain has had a change of heart. As Bloomberg noted on June 5:
Nowadays, the party's presumptive nominee is singing a different tune, striking a populist pose and saying "new jobs are coming"... ...Over the past few months, however, McCain has taken a lesson from Romney, acknowledging recently that "Americans are hurting.'' Returning to Michigan last month, the Arizona senator told a local television station that he would fight for new jobs and the state wouldn't "be left behind.''
Perhaps the good people of Michigan, as John McCain suggested to a Kentucky audience in April, can make a living on eBay.
10. Opposing Hurricane Katrina Investigations. During a June 4th town hall meeting in Baton Rouge, John McCain answered a reporter's question regarding Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the New Orleans levees by announcing:
"I’ve supported every investigation and ways of finding out what caused the tragedy. I’ve been here to New Orleans. I’ve met with people on the ground."
As it turns out, not so much. McCain's revisionist history neglects to mention that in 2005 and 2006 he twice voted against a commission to study the government's response to Katrina. He also opposed three separate emergency funding measures providing relief to Katrina victims, including the extension of five months of Medicaid benefits. And as ThinkProgress pointed out, "until traveling there one month ago, McCain had made just one public tour of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina touched down in August 2005."
And so it goes. As surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west each day, so too will John McCain change positions. (Like that other law of nature, McCain's flip-flops are literally becoming a daily occurrence. Since this piece was originally drafted on Saturday, McCain added two new policy turnabouts - on phasing out rather than repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax and on requiring a litmus test for his judicial appointees - to his litany of reversals.) As the Pew Research Center recently found, the word Americans now most frequently use to describe John McCain is not "maverick," but "old." Given the dizzying pace of his reversals, "opportunist" may soon top that list.