McCain's Falwell flip-flop

Why is John McCain making friends with Jerry Falwell and the religious right?

By Farhad Manjoo
April 3, 2006 11:14PM (UTC)
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On "Meet the Press" yesterday, Sen. John McCain flip-flopped. There's no other way to describe his newfound respect for the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom McCain once lumped in with Pat Robertson, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan as an "agent of intolerance" in American politics. McCain told NBC's Tim Russert that since making those statements he has spoken to Falwell and the two "agreed to disagree on certain issues and we agreed to move forward." (You can see a clip from the interview on Video Dog.) McCain now plans to speak at Falwell's Liberty University (Go Fightin' Flames!), and when asked if he still considers the reverend an agent of intolerance, he said, "No, I don't." It was as plain as any political reversal in recent memory -- McCain might as well have jumped on a windsurfing board and insisted that he actually liked Falwell before he hated him.

As Russert pointed out, the Falwell incident isn't McCain's only recent reversal; the senator also supports making Bush's tax cuts permanent, though he didn't vote for the cuts in 2001. He has also, obviously, strongly supported Bush; McCain campaigned strenuously for the president's reelection in 2004 even though he told Russert in 2000 that he wouldn't describe Bush's primary campaign as honorable. So is McCain shifting his views to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2008? As Russert asked, "Are you concerned that people are going to say, 'I see. John McCain tried "Straight-Talk Express," "maverick"; it didn't work in 2000, so now in 2008 he's going to become a conventional, typical politician, reaching out to people that he called agents of intolerance, voting for tax cuts he opposed, to make himself more appealing to the hard-core Republican base?'"


McCain gamely defended his positions. "I think most people will judge my record exactly for what it is, where I take positions that I stand, that I stand for and I believe in," he said. "Whether it be climate change, whether it be torture, or whether it be ... immigration." McCain has co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Ted Kennedy that would allow illegal immigrants to gain citizenship if they pay $2,000, pay back taxes and learn English. "I don't think that my position on immigration is exactly pleasing to the far right base. I will continue to take positions that I believe in and I stand for," he pointed out. "And I recognize that a lot of my credibility is based on that, and I think most Americans will judge me by my entire record."

Now, probably unlike many regular readers of War Room, I like John McCain. Actually, let me be clearer: I like John McCain a lot. I've never voted for a Republican, but if McCain is on the ballot in 2008, there are few Democrats I'd choose over him. I'd pick him not just because I admire his championing some tough measures during his time in the Senate -- including on campaign finance, global warming, torture, corruption and government waste -- and despite my opposition to many of his right-wing views (see Paul Krugman's recent roundup). I'd mostly choose him because unlike many politicians today, McCain looks and sounds honest. Unlike George W. Bush, John Kerry, Al Gore and about 90 other senators, and more like Russ Feingold and the old Howard Dean, McCain doesn't appear doctored, managed, worked upon, and he's not reflexive or knee-jerk. Even if you disagree with his political choices, which span the spectrum and often upset the generally accepted Washington way, they at least carry the virtue of being authentic; they aren't the jaded positions of a party hack or some other kind of political simpleton.

And it's precisely because I like McCain that I find his new position on Falwell so depressing. When McCain declared, in 2000, that Falwell and Robertson weren't good for the Republican Party, he was, of course, correct. Indeed, time has only strengthened his position; since then, Falwell has blamed homosexuals for 9/11, and Robertson has said many things just as dumb. The Falwell flip-flop may not make a substantive difference to McCain's governing philosophy -- as he notes, he still favors policies that conservatives decry -- but it does signal a comfort with conventional politics. And if McCain becomes comfortable with conventional politics, many of McCain's supporters will likely become uncomfortable with him; I can say that as one of them.


The senator must understand this, right? He's got to see, doesn't he, that catering to the right is a lose-lose strategy -- that cozying up to Falwell isn't going to win him any friends on the extremes, because they won't believe his shift is real, and that it's sure to lose him many of his supporters in the middle? What is he doing? Is John McCain crazy like a fox -- or is he just crazy?

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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