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Jewish World Review March 7, 2000 /30 Adar 1, 5760

John Leo

John Leo
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McCain's malleable messages -- Why have social conservatives been so resistant to John McCain? Detecting important differences between McCain and George W. Bush is no easy task. From pro-life stance to selection of Supreme Court justices (both cited Antonin Scalia as their sort of judge), they seem about the same.

McCain is surely closer to the conservative value system than either Bob Dole or President George Bush. Besides, with his record of military honor, McCain ought to be hailed as the ideal antidote to Bill Clinton.

One reason conservatives are bothered is that McCain sometimes seems to send tiny messages of distaste for the causes he is supposed to be supporting. Referring to the anti-abortion movement as a "business" is one example. Pro-lifers picked up on it right away.

These faint hints of distaste may be subconscious. Some may even be imaginary. But people talk. Marvin Olasky, a professor and religious editor who is backing George W. Bush, thinks McCain does not understand Christianity. Rush Limbaugh thinks McCain reflects the disdain of "the Republican country-club, blue-blood establishment" for "gun-toting, Southern-accented pro-lifers."

These apprehensions are responsible for all the anger over McCain's good relations with reporters, America's most reliable pool of liberal Democratic voters. As Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, says, the view is that "If Jonathan Alter (of Newsweek) loves the guy, if Al Hunt (of The Wall Street Journal) loves the guy, there must be something wrong with him." Peggy Noonan adds this: "Conservatives know that all the establishments that surround presidents -- Washington society, the media, pollsters and political professionals -- tend to push Republicans leftward." So naturally many fear that McCain's leftward push is already being felt.

Most reporters like McCain because of his physical courage, his candor and humor, and the easy access he grants the press. All this is considered refreshing, particularly in contrast to Bill Clinton, who lacks all these traits and detests reporters. Besides, McCain is good at flattering reporters and making them think their ideas and suggestions are important.

Many reporters feel that McCain somehow gives off an aura of being one of them (i.e., liberal) even though his stated opinions are conservative. The first pundit to bring this notion into the open was Mickey Kaus, the Internet commentator ( McCain, he said, "seems to be a politician in the process of evolving, from right to left, before our eyes in the middle of a heady populist crusade of a campaign." This evolution, Kaus said, "is being egged on by a press corps that, if not monolithically liberal, is a lot more liberal than McCain was before the evolution began."

This argument is a sure way of draining off McCain's conservative support. But again, there is no way to prove that such an evolution is under way. It's just a feeling, based mostly on hints and a few reversals of opinion. One theory is that when McCain does a flip-flop, the first position is taken to warm the hearts of the media (the Confederate flag is racist; I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade), while the second position is a morning-after return to Republican orthodoxy (the Confederate flag isn't racist; I oppose Roe v. Wade).

Take the abortion issue. Go to the National Right to Life Committee Web site ( and you find a long attack on McCain under the headline "How John McCain Threatens the Pro-Life Cause." The centerpiece of the argument is McCain's statement to the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle last Aug. 19: "I'd love to see a point where it (Roe v. Wade) is irrelevant and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. But certainly in the short term, or even in 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."

McCain has apologized for that statement, saying he misspoke. "They ate his lunch," an adviser later said on radio. "They were getting on him. And he said to me: 'I was not strong when I needed to be strong.'" But the NRLC article cites several other media quotes that seem to indicate that McCain may be leaning pro-choice. And Steve Brill, owner of Brill's Content magazine, said on Fox TV News that two reporters covering the McCain campaign had assured him: "You know, he really doesn't feel that strongly about abortion and he isn't really as pro-gun as he lets on ... he's kind of let us know that he's not that hard-edged on those subjects."

But on Friday, McCain spoke to editors and writers at the New York Daily News, just down the hall from my office, so I went. When asked what we could expect on the abortion issue from a McCain presidency, he said this: You can expect that I would get a bill passed banning partial-birth abortion, that I would push parental-consent laws, and that I would appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court with the likelihood that Roe v. Wade, a deeply flawed decision, will be overturned. In that case, the battle for the hearts and minds of the Americans, he said, would be fought out on the state level, as it should be.

Mind you, this is New York City, where pro-choice sentiments are considered mandatory. If McCain intends to waffle on this issue, he blew a great chance here.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Send your comments by clicking here.


03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

© 2000, John Leo