Senator steers right to woo Bush’s inner circle

When Senator John McCain rides in to town to be star turn at the Tory conference, the party leader w

In 2000, when he ran against George W Bush for the Republican nomination for president, John McCain denounced the Reverend Jerry Falwell and other leaders of the religious right as "agents of intolerance". He dubbed his campaign bus the "Straight Talk Express" and made taking the money out of politics the central issue of his candidacy.

In 2006, in an effort to make nice with social conservatives for another likely presidential run, McCain delivered the commencement address at Falwell's evangelical college, Liberty University. Now he's aggressively courting many of the Bush inner circle whose influence not so long ago he deplored as corrosive.

Have presidential aspirations changed the senator from Arizona? Or was McCain's maverick mystique always a mirage? The answer is "a little bit of both".

McCain has always been far more conservative than either his supporters or detractors acknowledge. He opposes abortion, gun control, gay marriage and the International Criminal Court. He supports the death penalty, school vouchers, a missile defence shield and teaching "intelligent design" in public schools. Well before 9/11, McCain advocated a new Reagan doctrine of "rogue-state rollback". Since then, he has emerged as a steadfast backer of both President Bush's war against terrorism and the war in Iraq while urging a hardline stance against Iran and North Korea. During the recent debate over the legal rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, he largely allowed the Bush administration to define what does and does not constitute torture. His centrist reputation simply proves how far right the centre has shifted in Republican politics.

McCain also holds moderate positions, which include favouring citizenship for illegal immigrants and supporting caps on greenhouse-gas emissions and federal funding for stem-cell research. But there have long been two sides to McCain: the conservative loyalist, and the unpredictable maverick featured in the media. In preparation for a presidential comeback in 2008, McCain has chosen to unveil and market the conservative side. A détente with conservatives that began in 2004 is now a full-on charm offensive.

He repeatedly describes himself as a "conservative Republican" and calls Ronald Reagan "my hero". Of the current president he says: "Campaigning with George W Bush was one of the proudest moments of my life."

Such rhetoric, and support for Bush's policies, has helped McCain secure support from many of the Republican Party's leading strategists, policy experts, fundraisers and donors. That includes some of Bush's top operatives and political consultants - and even a few of the president's best friends. "I think a lot of people are surprised at the extent to which there has been a rapprochement between the Bush and McCain worlds," Bush's former media consultant Mark McKinnon recently told the New York Times. And McCain's media adviser in 2000, Greg Stevens, says: "The party is pretty heavy with Bush people right now, and they will want to win again. Many are very interested in John because they think he's got the best chance." The once apostate may be the only one who can carry on Bush's legacy - and save the Republican Party from itself.

But Democrats are turning on their old ally, dubbing McCain's new campaign the "Double Talk Express". When he gave his Liberty University commencement address at the liberal New School university in New York City, students booed and raised banners reading: "McCain Does Not Speak For Me". The undergraduate keynote speaker ripped up her prepared remarks and denounced the senator's support for the war in Iraq.

Getting bashed by liberals only helps McCain among conservatives. But the more that right-wingers agree with McCain, the more he risks alienating moderates and forfeiting the independent image that gives him wide appeal. Instead of using his influence to redefine what the Republican Party stands for at a time when its policies are increasingly unpopular with many Americans, McCain has chosen mostly to hew to the party line. In a recent interview, the popular comedian and talk-show host Jon Stewart asked McCain: "Are you going into crazy base world [courting hard-core Republicans]?" McCain tried to duck the question before responding: "I'm afraid so."

Ari Berman is a contributing writer for the Nation magazine

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act