Veteran conservative leaders now fear John McCain’s insurgent presidential candidacy could lead to a takeover of the GOP by the Eastern establishment, moderate-to-liberal wing of the party.
Conservatives who were on the frontlines of the Reagan revolution and who led the ground forces that spearheaded a movement that has largely kept the GOP in conservative hands for two decades, now see their hold on the party slipping away if Mr. McCain succeeds in beating George W. Bush for the nomination.
In a series of interviews since Mr. McCain routed Mr. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, these conservatives say that despite his posturing as a Reagan conservative, Mr. McCain is no conservative. They say his core campaign proposals represent a complete abandonment of party principles that would turn the GOP leftward.
Some see him as a Nelson Rockefeller or Nixon Republican who can swing widely in his positions indeed, as President Nixon did when he ushered in a wave of new spending programs and agencies and could never say no to the editorial page of the New York Times.
“McCain says he is a Reagan conservative. That’s absurd,” said David Keene, the American Conservative Union president and a veteran of many GOP presidential campaigns.
“He has left the conservative wing of the Senate Republican Party and has moved into the liberal-moderate wing,” Mr. Keene told me.
ACU compiles a widely followed rating index that tracks how liberal or conservative lawmakers vote. Mr. Keene said Mr. McCain’s score plunged from an 86 percent lifetime rating to 68 percent last year.
“John McCain has pretty much repudiated his previous record,” Mr. Keene said.
Many others agree with Mr. Keene’s assessment of the Arizona maverick.
“I don’t think he’s a Reagan conservative,” said Lyn Nofziger, who was President Reagan’s White House political director. “I don’t think he knows where he is. I think he’s evolving and he’s evolving leftward.”
Take, for example, Mr. McCain’s campaign finance bill to impose strict new controls on political advocacy groups. It has very little support among Republicans but is strongly supported by Bill Clinton, Al Gore and most Democrats. “If you find Democrats voting for your proposals, you have to begin wondering where you are on the political spectrum,” Mr. Nofziger said.
Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner, who has been a major voice in defining the conservative agenda but usually shuns politics, is unusually blunt about what he thinks of Mr. McCain’s views.
When I asked Mr. Feulner if he thought Mr. McCain’s policy proposals represented generally accepted conservative thought, he told me, “No, I do not.”
“He’s not the person who would carry that flame forward,” he said of the conservative agenda. “It is certainly not” in the mold of the Heritage Foundation’s brand of mainstream conservatism, he said.
Most of the conservatives I talked to singled out Mr. McCain’s tax plan that would raise business taxes by $150 billion and freeze income tax rates including Mr. Clinton’s 1993 increases where they are now; his embrace of the Clinton-backed “patient bill of rights”; his $500 billion tobacco tax bill; his support for a gun control amendment in the Senate last year; his class warfare attack against Mr. Bush’s tax cuts as “tax cuts for the rich”; and his shifting, back-pedaling views on right-to-life issues.
“McCain is a guy who thinks the federal government should solve every problem, and that’s a dangerous thing to have in a president,” said Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute.
Martin Anderson, who was Mr. Reagan’s first White House domestic adviser, also attacked Mr. McCain’s conservative claims, saying Mr. McCain has broken with conservative thought on these and other core issues that are bedrock principles within the GOP.
“I know Ronald Reagan, and John McCain is no Ronald Reagan. Not even close. Maybe close to Nelson Rockefelller, the tough, liberal, one-time governor of New York. But Reagan? No.
“Would Reagan have supported a massive, regressive tax on cigarettes the largest tax increased proposed in U.S. history? Absolutely not. Reagan was for cutting taxes, not imposing them,” Mr. Anderson said.
“Would Reagan have called for changing the campaign finance laws to make them more onerous, violating the constitutional rights of free speech and having the government regulate issue advocacy ads? Not on your life.
“Would Reagan ever call for a tax cut that did not reduce marginal tax rates that would not stimulate the economy, that would not create new and better jobs? No way.”
Mr. McCain has skillfully repackaged himself in this race as a neo-populist moderate with traces of conservative rhetoric. He has used his past right-of-center voting record to protect his right flank while appealing to a larger and more liberal-minded independent voting bloc that likes his left-leaning reformist proposals.
With much of Mr. McCain’s political appeal stemming from his character and his war-hero biography, he and his Concord Coalition advisers think he can afford to break with the GOP on core issues that image and rhetoric can trump party principles.
In an era when the economy is strong, jobs are plentiful and the future looks bright, will this be the year when conservative ideology died and the GOP turns left? Stay tuned.
Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.