He's no Teddy Roosevelt, but he's not Gary Bauer either

On the environment and gay rights, John McCain is a mainstream Republican.

Published February 12, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

John McCain likes to present himself as a beyond-ideology maverick, but the Arizona senator's positions on two key issues -- the environment and gay rights -- place him squarely on the right side of the political spectrum.

McCain likes to recall the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt when discussing the environment, much the way he calls the GOP the party of Abraham Lincoln when addressing race. But his record is too mixed to place him in Roosevelt's class. When it comes to green issues, he's generally perceived as good for Arizona and the national park system, but bad for the rest of the country.

After polls showed that the GOP suffered in the 1996 elections as a result of the fact that 55 percent of Republicans didn't trust their party on environmental issues, McCain publicly attempted to soften the party's anti-green reputation. In a New York Times environmental call to arms, McCain wrote: "We need to assure the public that in the 105th Congress the Republican environmental agenda will consist of more than coining new epithets for environmental extremists or offering banal symbolic gestures."

Despite McCain's newfound environmental fervor, and a decent track record on land conservation issues (Grand Canyon Executive Trust director Ed Norton once called him "the Grand Canyon's best friend" for his work on behalf of the park), he still consistently has scored low on annual League of Conservation Voters environmental legislation score cards. During the 15 years LCV has tracked McCain, he has racked up a lifetime score of 20 out of 100. And last year, while he was arguing his maverick case for the presidency to the American public, he missed what LCV describes as five critical environmental votes on oil, wildlife, fuel efficiency and mining. His score card for 1999 was a dismal 11 percent.

Even more discouraging, when asked by Dartmouth environmental studies students about his environmental policy plans, he said he would "get more smart people working on the issue." Not exactly confidence-inspiring for a man who fancies himself heir to Roosevelt's legacy.

McCain's other environmental missteps have been widely reported. He publicly opposed a December Clinton administration order banning new road construction in 50 million acres of national forest in the Southwest. The decision was best decided by locals, McCain said, before launching into one of his characteristic tirades against Beltway hubris: "The idea that Washington knows best and that local residents cannot be trusted to do what's right in their own backyard is the epitome of federal arrogance." If elected, McCain has said he would repeal the road moratorium, along with President Clinton's 1996 decision to create the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

He has also failed to act on a measure before Congress that would close a loophole allowing foreign ships to sail into U.S. waters without adherence to U.S. regulations. Oregon Democrats Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio drafted the bill after last year's New Carissa disaster, where a foreign-flagged ship ran ashore at Coos Bay, Ore., and dumped 70,000 gallons of oil, and a similar scandal involving massive and deliberate oil dumpings by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. in areas surrounding U.S. coastal waters. The bill has sat untouched since March because McCain, who heads the oversight committee responsible for it, has been out on the campaign trail.

Arizonans have been most critical of the controversial telescope project McCain spearheaded in his home state. In 1989, he pushed through legislation to build giant telescopes for the University of Arizona on Mount Graham near Tucson, the habitat of a red squirrel threatened with extinction. The move was opposed by environmentalists because, they believed, it represented an unprecedented circumvention of the Endangered Species Act.

The incident also showed the elephant-in-the-china-closet side of McCain -- an issue his fellow GOP candidates have raised to question his fitness for the presidency. A General Accounting Office report following an investigation of the project accused McCain of threatening to have a U.S. Forest Service supervisor fired for halting construction of a road into the Mount Graham area during an administrative appeal of the observatory construction decision. According to the GAO, McCain told James Abbot that if "he did not cooperate on this project he would be the shortest tenured forest supervisor in the history of the Forest Service."

On gay rights, McCain is no Gary Bauer. But if he's Clintonian in any way, it's how he's learned to court upwardly mobile gays and lesbians -- and the fists full of cash many are willing to throw at the first Republican candidate who so much as winks at them -- while doing little of substance to address their real concerns.

McCain has long had an anti-discrimination policy in his Capitol Hill office, and has even appointed Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who is gay, to his national campaign steering committee. He set the stage for his gay fund-raising effort last year when he spoke to a group of Log Cabin Republicans. He's so far accepted $40,000 in contributions from members of the political action committee -- a far cry from the 1996 election, when Bob Dole famously returned a $1,000 check from the same people.

But McCain's overtures to the gay community are also, no doubt, influenced by a 1996 exit poll showing that despite stereotypes of gays as liberals, a full third of them voted for Republican candidates -- a remarkable accomplishment for the party of firebrand homophobes like Alan Keyes and Bauer (and Pat Buchanan, back in '96).

Though McCain says he supports gay anti-discrimination laws for housing and employment, the Human Rights Campaign reports that he has not endorsed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, two key pieces of legislation addressing those issues. He also publicly opposes same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships and gay adoptions, and he's vowed in his campaign to preserve the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy that has resulted in an 85 percent increase in the number of discharges of gays during the past five years.

And even though he has said he supports both anti-discrimination laws and amending hate-crime laws to include provisions for crimes against gays, HRC gives McCain a 50 out of 100 rating on its score card for gay issues

In 1993, he was criticized by the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force for his appearance at an Oregon fund-raiser for anti-gay organizer Lon Mabon and the Oregon Citizens Alliance. At his appearance, McCain gave a thinly veiled critique of the organization and extolled the virtues of being more tolerant and accepting diversity, but many were concerned that he would contribute in any way to raising money for an organization that sought (albeit unsuccessfully) passage that year of a ballot initiative that would have condemned homosexuality as "perverse" and denied equal rights protections to gays.

More recently, McCain spoke out on efforts to oust gay Arizona state Rep. Steve May from his post in the Army reserves. At a campaign rally on a Navajo reservation in Arizona in August, he told listeners, "We should in our party refrain from discrimination in any form," and that May is "a fine man. I have the greatest respect for him." But he voiced his support for May's discharge -- suggesting that sexual orientation is an appropriate consideration in the military because enlistees are compelled to live in housing situations beyond their control.

In trying to put a gay-friendly face on his anti-gay stance on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," McCain even went so far as to tell reporters last month that he had served with gays in the military. "I think we know by behavior and by attitudes ... and lifestyle," he said of his supposedly gay Navy comrades. The comment doesn't prove that McCain is a homophobe, but it shows a certain willingness to stereotype gays -- and a lack of awareness of the advances beyond stereotypes in modern gay culture.

But the HRC didn't bother to take him to task. "It's always risky to stereotype," HRC communications director David Smith told Time. "But McCain's comments are no big deal. Gays won't be picketing the Straight Talk Express."

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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Environment John Mccain R-ariz. Lgbt