Sen. John McCain has quietly been piling up flip-flops, including ditching his long-held support for the Law of the Sea convention and telling bloggers he now opposes the DREAM Act to legalize illegal alien students.
The sea treaty has become the latest litmus test for the 2008 Republican presidential field, and after a decade-long record of public support for it, Mr. McCain has pivoted to bring himself in line with the rest of the candidates.
“I would probably vote against it in its present form,” he told bloggers last week during a conference call.
Republican primary voters tilt to the right, and the sea treaty is another example of Mr. McCain veering to try to align himself with them, recanting positions along the way on immigration, tax cuts and campaign-finance reform.
Mr. McCain’s support for the sea treaty stretched back to the 1990s, when he signed a letter with three other senators urging its passage, and continued through 2003, when he was scheduled to testify on its behalf before a Senate committee.
But after the rest of the Republican presidential field took a stand against the treaty this month, Mr. McCain had little choice but to change, conservatives said.
“Where does that put him? Does he alienate the base again like he did on immigration or does he go with the conservatives’ feeling on this? In this case, McCain was sensible and realized he really doesn’t have a choice,” said Robert B. Bluey, the blogger who asked Mr. McCain about his position on the treaty during the conference call.
The Bush administration wants the sea treaty, arguing it will bring stability and ensure navigation rights to the U.S. Navy. Critics say the treaty could lead to an international taxing power and creates new international tribunals that could hurt the United States.
A McCain campaign operative said the senator rethought his position on the treaty over the past year, and concluded it contains threats to sovereignty.
The operative, speaking on the condition of anonymity, couldn’t say why those threats weren’t apparent before, though in his conference call Mr. McCain told the bloggers he is worried about global warming and the international race to claim the Arctic.
Mr. McCain — who has been a supporter and even a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — also said during the conference call that he would have opposed it on the Senate floor last week if he had stuck around for the vote.
The campaign operative said Mr. McCain made that flip earlier this summer after the failure of his signature immigration bill, which he worked on with President Bush and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.
“The senator has said 1,000 times since immigration reform failed this summer that he got the message. The American people want the border secured first,” the operative said.
Flipping positions is standard business for campaigns.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards have both recanted their support for the war in Iraq, former Sen. Fred Thompson and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani have at least partially renounced their support for the 2002 campaign-finance overhaul, and Mr. Giuliani has even flipped on supporting the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
But Mr. McCain’s list is growing fast — possibly because he brings a longer record — and is coming on signature issues that bear his name, such as the McCain-Kennedy immigration proposal.
The problem for Mr. McCain, says one Republican strategist unaffiliated with any campaign, is that his appeal to voters is based on his willingness to stick to his own convictions.
“It’s a little bit hard to be driving that Straight Talk Express while sipping that French nuance,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican pollster.
Cliff Kincaid, president of America’s Survival Inc., who has been a leader in fighting the sea treaty, said Mr. McCain did what he had to do to keep his campaign afloat.
“Senator McCain was a victim of pro-treaty propaganda, engineered by Navy lawyers, previously stacked Senate hearings, and [Indiana Republican Sen. Richard G.] Lugar’s misleading claims in favor of the pact,” Mr. Kincaid said. “To his credit, McCain has wised up. His decision should definitely help prevent his presidential campaign from sinking like the Titanic.”
The treaty is likely to survive a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today, but Republicans are gearing up for a bruising floor fight.
Last week, Mr. Thompson and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced their opposition to the treaty, following the lead of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is trying to turn the issue into a major campaign point. And yesterday, Mr. Giuliani also came out in opposition, calling it “fundamentally flawed.”
Mr. McCain’s statement to bloggers was somewhat more equivocal that Mr. Giuliani’s. Mr. Bluey, who is also director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Media & Public Policy, said it appeared Mr. McCain “was trying to leave himself some wiggle room.”
Mr. McCain said there is a need for a law of the sea, with some tweaks.
“I have not frankly looked too carefully at the latest situation as it is, but it would be nice if we had some of the provisions in it. But I do worry a lot about American sovereignty aspects of it, so I would probably vote against it in its present form,” he said, according to a transcript posted by Mr. Bluey.