Sunday, March 5, 2006

Arizona’s Sen. John McCain, front-runner for the GOP’s 2008 presidential nomination, has been busily repairing or replacing his positions on two key Republican issues: abortion and tax cuts.

His actions in the last month were aimed at ending estranged relations with two powerful constituencies in his party’s base: economic and social conservatives, who, at best, view him with some suspicion or, at worst, do not trust him to defend their most deeply held beliefs.

His vote to extend some of President Bush’s tax cuts, after opposing them for years, and a remark supporting the repeal of Roe v. Wade, may have eased relations with both groups. But they also raised troubling questions about the depth of his convictions. Here’s the story:

Mr. McCain voted last month to continue President Bush’s tax cuts on capital gains and dividends, among other tax cuts contained in a $70 billion Tax Relief Extension Reconciliation Act, now in a House-Senate conference.

But his vote was a sharp reversal of his anti-tax-cut posture that came at a time when he has been courting economic conservatives who fear that, as president, he would oppose further tax cuts and might even roll back Mr. Bush’s tax reductions to shrink the budget deficits.

Indeed, as welcome as it was, his vote only deepened the measure of distrust among many conservatives who said he did it solely for political reasons, not because of any deeply held beliefs that tax cuts spur growth. “It’s a big flip-flop, but I’m happy that he’s flopped,” said Grover Norquist, the Americans for Tax Reform president and tax-cut crusader.

But Mr. Norquist says Mr. McCain still has to prove his tax-cut is bona fide. “He has two years to convince people this is not a political ploy but a road to Damascus” change in his fundamental beliefs, he told me.

Other supply-siders who fought the tax-cut battles alongside Ronald Reagan similarly distrusted Mr. McCain’s flip-flop.

“It looks political to me. It runs counter to his whole past behavior. He’s got to appeal to the [conservative] base of the party, because I don’t think there is a Republican in the land who can get the nomination [voting] against the tax cuts,” said veteran economic strategist Larry Hunter, a senior fellow at the Policy Institute for Innovation.

At the heart of this suspicion about Mr. McCain’s motives is the belief he is not a Reaganite on tax-cut issues, which are at the core of the GOP’s agenda. “He’s a conservative on some things and not on others. He’s certainly not a supply-sider,” Mr. Hunter said. “He doesn’t subscribe to the Reagan economic approach that tax cuts stimulate increased growth.”

Critics note that when Mr. Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax-cut bill came up for a final vote in the spring of 2001, as the economy showed signs of slipping, Mr. McCain was one of two Senate Republicans who voted against it. His reason: “So many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans.” He opposed Mr. Bush’s $350 billion tax bill in 2003, when the economy was really in trouble, because he said he was “very concerned about the deficit.”

Although this year’s deficit is much larger than back then, he finally voted “aye” for tax cuts that, while good for the economy, will help a lot of upper-income investors, too.

A statement released by Mr. McCain’s office explaining his switch said the Arizonan was concerned about “the leveling of some key economic indicators such as real GDP growth rates.”

In the meantime, Mr. McCain also is trying to improve his relations with social and religious conservatives who have long-held suspicions about his commitment to the pro-life cause.

Those suspicions were deepened when he made it clear in his 2000 presidential campaign that he opposed overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortions.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he said, “In the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force x number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations.”

But when asked in a January interview on “The CBS Early Show” whether he saw the high court banning abortions one day, Mr. McCain said, “I’ve never agreed with Roe v. Wade, so it wouldn’t bother me any.”

That flat-out remark seemed at odds with his previous dance around the issue. It smacked of politics pure and simple. Asked to comment, the National Right to Life Committee said nothing.

Matching one’s views to the party’s positions is hardly a new campaign tactic in presidential politics, but if those views lack conviction or smack of political opportunism, they can be deadly. John McCain has two years of Senate votes to prove to his skeptics he really believes what he says.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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