"People see him as a centrist"

When it comes to John McCain's ideology, the perceptions contradict the record.

By Steve Benen

Published April 14, 2008 3:00PM (EDT)

What a pleasant surprise; the Associated Press has made note of John McCain's political ideology.

The independent label sticks to John McCain because he antagonizes fellow Republicans and likes to work with Democrats.

But a different label applies to his actual record: conservative.

The likely Republican presidential nominee is much more conservative than voters appear to realize. McCain leans to the right on issue after issue, not just on the Iraq war but also on abortion, gay rights, gun control and other issues that matter to his party's social conservatives.

The four-term Arizona senator, a longtime member of the Armed Services Committee, criticized the earlier handling of the war but has been a crucial ally in President Bush's effort to increase and maintain U.S. forces in Iraq.

''People see him as a centrist. They don't see him as a conservative,'' said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. He added, "In fact, they put him pretty close to themselves, in terms of ideology, and put President Bush way to the right of themselves."

The AP's Libby Quaid noted, however, that this perception is disconnected from the votes and policy positions McCain actually embraces. (At least, that is, this McCain. After all of his flip-flopping and efforts to reinvent himself, I get the sense this is at least McCain 4.0.)

The next question, of course, is why McCain can vote like a conservative and be perceived as a moderate. I think there are three main reasons.

First, McCain used to be far less conservative than he is now. McCain came to believe, however, that he couldn't win the Republican nomination in '08 as a moderate, so he conveniently went through an ideological transformation. The problem is that most Americans aren't aware of the shift, and still perceive McCain as he was, not as he is.

Second, Dems don't help. After having worked with McCain in the past, a few too many Dems still perceive him as reasonable and accommodating. Just two weeks ago, Bill Clinton, campaigning for his wife, hailed McCain as a "moderate." Not helpful.

And third, in general, the media has been anxious to help McCain out on this.

It's why today's AP item is such a treat. More, please.

Steve Benen

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