Last Monday, at the deadline to register for the California primary, I found myself thinking the
unthinkable: I'm going to register Republican, for the first time in my life, to vote for John
McCain. I was feeling the New Hampshire bounce and the South Carolina swoon -- and the chance
that McCain could, against all odds, knock off the smirking tycoon from Texas was suddenly
intoxicating. I believe in democracy, not dynasty; I don't like smug rich people; and I don't date guys as untested by life as George W. Bush, let alone want to see them as president.
Of course, McCain and I are no love connection, either. My presidential personal ad would read:
Divorced white female voter; mom, nonsmoker and lifelong Democrat (with a few conservative
kinks), seeks good man or woman. Pro-choice, pro-gun control, into public education and the environment, likes long walks through civil rights museums and politicians who know what the meaning of "is" is.
And though McCain only scores on the last count -- he's compulsively honest, fessing up unasked
to cheating on his first wife -- I was, for a moment, ready to give him my vote. And I'm not
alone. Across the nation, Democrats and independents are falling for the war hero turned senator.
He's certainly won the hearts of the constituency most pilloried as liberal, the media. Newsweek's
Jonathan Alter calls the race for reporters' affection "the nation's first primary," and says McCain
worked it like an Irish pol in South Boston on St. Patrick's Day.
And here I was falling for McCain myself, and I'd never even met this political heartthrob in person. It was time for some bracing re-education, in the form of a walk through his voting record and actual positions, to try to answer the question: Can a liberal really vote for John McCain?
But first, a soapbox moment: There are two excellent reasons to switch sides and vote for McCain, at least in California. My burning desire to register Republican came as much from my hatred of the state's party bosses as any affinity for McCain. After California voted to open its presidential primary in 1996, Democratic and Republican leaders, led by liberal machine boss State Sen. John Burton of San Francisco (another good reason to vote Republican), subverted the ballot measure and made sure pesky voters couldn't interfere with each party's process of anointing, rather than electing, its preferred nominee.
So now, on March 7, Democrats can vote for Republicans in the primary, and vice versa, but when it comes to divvying up delegates, only the votes of registered Democrats and Republicans will be counted. McCain could win the popular vote, for instance, but lose to party boy Bush in the delegate count, and thus lose the state. Sounds like Cuba, not California. While New York's attempt to rig the primary got lots of ink, ours is far more sinister. Anyone who changes party registration, in whichever direction, to subvert this so-called election will be a hero.
The second reason to vote for McCain is to enjoy the spectacle of the party of big money being forced to nominate a candidate who opposes big money. This is big fun. Lots of Republican bosses would rather lose with Bush than win with McCain, and I can't help wanting to be part of any movement that makes Republican titans -- like Sens. Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell -- as well as that devout Buddhist fund-raiser Al Gore squirm. Never mind that McCain's taken money from big business himself, and isn't completely clean on the issue: Nobody is, and his
proposals to take money out of politics are arguably the best thing going on this election year.
Yet, despite the New Republic's best efforts to say otherwise in Jonathan Chait's provocative but unconvincing McCain profile "This Man is NOT a Republican,"
Democrats who vote for McCain must do so with the sober awareness that they're voting for a right-winger. But most seem anything but sober. McCain's Democratic buddies are apparently guided by a hunch that's a twist on the slogan of his Arizona homeboy Barry Goldwater: In your heart,
you know he's ... not really right.
But they're wrong.
Chait could be right about one thing: McCain may be a work in progress (aren't we all?), evolving
away from the Goldwater certainties of his early career to a kind of centrism. But the evidence of
that conversion is thin. That analysis mostly comes down to this: Conservatives are dorks, and liberals are
cool. McCain is a cool guy, therefore he must be a liberal. Nobody like him would try to turn back
the clock on, say, abortion rights, would he?
But of course he would. Any time McCain's been given a chance to act on abortion, he's voted to
curb it. As Bruce Shapiro
recently described in Salon, McCain has voted to deny federal abortion funds to low-income
women, prohibit abortion at U.S. military bases overseas, and he supported a rider to an
international aid bill that blocked all global family-planning funding, not just for abortion. Last
year, he sponsored legislation that would have made it a felony to transport a woman under 18
across state lines to thwart parental-notification laws. Of 86 votes on abortion rights issues, he
voted the so-called pro-life line 82 times, according to the National Abortion Rights Action
It's true that last summer, while preparing for his presidential campaign, McCain told the San Francisco Chronicle that he wouldn't support efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade because it would drive
pregnant women to "illegal and dangerous operations." But he quickly backtracked on the
statement, and reaffirmed his support for reversing Roe. To his relative credit, he has pushed a
big-tent Republicanism on the issue, refuses to make opposing abortion a litmus test for his vice
president or Supreme Court nominees, and was brave enough to suggest the Republican Party
platform be amended to allow abortion in cases of rape or incest, which the cowardly Bush won't
back. The National Right to Life Committee has repaid him by running attack ads in South
Carolina (though they're madder about his drive to ban soft money than his few conciliatory
gestures on abortion). But even though only 14 percent of Americans polled want to see abortion
illegal, McCain has chosen to play to them, at least for the primaries.
He's had a similar failure of nerve on South Carolina's Confederate flag. The first time the issue
came up, the straight-talking McCain got it at least partly right: He called the flag "a symbol of
slavery," though he said whether it flew or not was a decision best left to the state. Soon after that
he reversed himself on this crucial issue, just as he did on Roe vs. Wade, and defended the flag as
"a symbol of heritage." At the time I wondered if the Arizonan knew "heritage" was a Southern
code word for rehabilitating the Confederacy, slavery and all.
Then I learned: Of course he did, because his key South Carolina strategist, Richard Quinn, is
editor-in-chief of Southern Partisan magazine -- kind of a Southern Living for Confederacy lovers,
except for all those nasty articles about that race traitor, Abe Lincoln -- and a paid consultant
behind the effort to keep the flag flying. To me, McCain's keeping Quinn on his payroll is even
worse than his flip-flopping on the flag itself.
The list goes on. Though he's been called "moderate" on social issues, he opposes many gay-rights measures. His environmental record is weak. And while he may offer straight talk about adultery, he's had a forked tongue on key policy issues. He says he supports
the conservative flat-tax proposal, but doesn't think it should apply to Bill Gates and some guy
who makes $30,000 a year (memo to McCain: that's exactly what a flat tax would do). He wants
every American to have health insurance, but doesn't want the government to pay for it, and gets
flustered when forced to talk specifics about health care issues.
On education, it's Bush who is the liberal choice, because his proposals for demanding
accountability from run-amuck education bureaucracies and for closing the unconscionable
achievement gap between rich and poor, white and non-white, is the best news on the education front for a long time. Until recently, McCain's only educational proposal was a school voucher experiment. For the right, school vouchers are the equivalent of the partial-birth abortion
issue, draining tons of political effort for a matter that will affect a tiny minority.
Conservatives like McCain would apparently rather fight teachers unions with the symbolic
vouchers issue -- which will reach a small proportion of kids -- than take on the tough
work of reforming public education. That would include taking on teachers unions, frankly, but
in a meaningful and not merely symbolic way -- and in a way that would benefit millions of kids.
On Thursday, he tried to flesh out his education ideas, but the hodgepodge proposal only showed
his lack of experience on the issue.
So in the end, I flirted with John McCain, but I left my registration Democratic. I still don't know how I'll vote March 7. There's not enough difference between Gore and Bill Bradley to send me running to the polls, and I still might vote for McCain hoping to shame party potentates with the spectacle of a popular vote victory for the insurgent, while the delegates go to Bush.
But if I do that, I'll know it's because I want McCain to embarrass hack politicians in both parties, not that I want him to be president.