Maverick -- or panderer?

Will John McCain abandon his principled opposition to a federal ban on gay marriage to suck up to the religious right?

Published May 12, 2006 1:35PM (EDT)

Next month, the Senate will act out what has become a favorite Republican ritual in election years by calling up a constitutional amendment to prohibit homosexual couples from marrying. In theory, the objective of this splashy spectacle is to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment with the required two-thirds majority and send this obnoxious legislation forward toward full ratification by Congress and the states. But since that is impossible, why would the Senate leadership waste everyone's time on this nonsense?

If nothing else, the marriage amendment provides a test for the most politically ambitious Republican senators -- notably Majority Leader Bill Frist, who promised evangelical conservatives last winter that he would bring the amendment to a vote before the summer recess, and Sen. John McCain, whose principled opposition to the amendment is now an obstacle to any rapprochement with the religious right.

For McCain, the issue of the marriage amendment has risen again at a particularly inconvenient moment. As he moves toward a presidential campaign in 2008, his dilemma is whether to pander to the right, and thus destroy his centrist "maverick" image, or uphold principle and damage his prospects in the Republican primaries.

This weekend, he is scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University, the Virginia higher education institution where Jerry Falwell molds young minds. At that happy event the Arizona senator will share the podium with Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who has publicly mocked McCain's reputation for "straight talk" and questioned his commitment to the "sanctity of marriage."

Whatever McCain tells the students at Liberty, his appearance there may mark a disappointing end to his peculiar public courtship with Falwell, which began with private meetings in Washington.

At first the fundamentalist pastor, once described by McCain as an "agent of intolerance," seemed to be holding out the possibility of an eventual presidential endorsement. "We dealt with every difference we have," said Falwell several weeks ago, adding that he thought he could support the Arizonan in 2008. "There are no deal breakers now. But I told him, 'You have a lot of fence mending to do.' He is in the process of healing the breach with evangelical groups."

For consorting with McCain, who is widely despised on the religious right for many reasons, Falwell himself came under sharp criticism from his comrades. When he announced the Liberty University invitation, the American Family Association's news Web site, Agape Press, expressed shock because of "McCain's past opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment, his support for embryonic stem-cell research, and his recent cameo appearance in the raunchy, nudity-filled movie 'Wedding Crashers.'" Falwell initially responded by suggesting that McCain might change his position on the marriage amendment this year. He claimed that the Arizona senator had assured him that if federal courts invalidated the state amendments banning gay marriage, McCain would become "a champion and a leader" for the Federal Marriage Amendment. In an essay that appeared in the New York Times on May 6, however, Falwell acknowledged that the two men differ on the marriage amendment. Yet he went on to say that McCain "is the front-runner for the [2008] nomination and is the kind of conservative candidate whom I would have little trouble supporting."

In interviews with evangelical journalists, Falwell has offered a different reason for their new relationship. "I have known him for quite some time," said the reverend, "but I had an extended conversation with him several months ago in his office, and he told me of his commitment to Jesus Christ and his desire at this stage of his life to honor the Lord." However sincere that desire may be -- along with the undoubtedly sincere desire to neutralize opposition on the Republican right -- McCain apparently hasn't changed his mind about the marriage amendment. While visiting Iowa recently, he said he still plans to vote against the amendment, reprising the role he played in 2004. Back then Frist brought the marriage amendment to the floor as a cynical ploy, driven by electoral politics rather than fervent faith. At the command of President Bush and Karl Rove, he was seeking to excite the right and force Democrats to vote against the amendment. While the divisive strategy worked, the amendment itself embarrassingly expired in a filibuster at the hands of the Democrats and a few Republicans -- most notably including McCain.

That moment was among the Arizona senator's best in recent years, when he has since spent so much time debasing himself for a president whose henchmen once tried to drown him and his family in campaign filth. "The constitutional amendment we're debating today strikes me as antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans," McCain said during the floor debate. "It usurps from the states a fundamental authority they have always possessed and imposes a federal remedy for a problem that most states do not believe confronts them." He vowed to change his position only if federal judges invalidated state marriage laws, forcing the states to recognize gay nuptials.

Now Perkins and other religious-right leaders complain that McCain is ducking even that commitment. "Although Senator McCain holds claim to the 'Straight Talk Express,' we are confused about his commitment to protect marriage," Perkins said in a recent press release. "Two years ago, the Senator opposed a marriage amendment because he felt that state marriage amendments would survive federal court challenges. However, since then we've seen Nebraska's marriage amendment struck down and other state amendments tied up in court."

In other words, no more excuses: He must either vote the partisan line or be tarred as "anti-family." Of course, if McCain changes his vote next month, he will be pilloried as a flip-flopper, no matter what explanation he may offer. His critics will laughingly point out that he was against the amendment before he was for it. His status as a tolerant, moderate Republican maverick will fall.

So the chances are that he will stick with his position, at least for now. But as the presidential primaries draw nearer, the pressure to support the marriage amendment will grow. So determined are his adversaries on the right to defeat McCain that unless he knuckles under on their issues they may threaten to mount a third-party religious candidacy against him.

For McCain, the Falwell gambit solved nothing, even if he can truly depend on the man who once led the Moral Majority. Most of the religious right still despises him, and the problem they pose has not changed. He can choose authenticity, which means alienating the largest and most determined voting bloc in his party. Or he can choose expediency, which means repelling the independent voters who form his own constituency. The lesser Republican candidates trailing behind are waiting for him to make that choice.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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