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A Man Who Won't Sell His Soul

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

BRUSSELS -- Sen. John McCain likes the moral high ground, and he takes palpable pleasure in delivering zingers to errant Russians, Iranians and Europeans, as he did at a conference here last weekend. But as the apparent front-runner in the 2008 presidential race, McCain is spending more of his time in the bog of American politics, and it's no picnic.

McCain's critics have accused him of playing a game of political Twister the past few months. When he accepted a speaking invitation from Jerry Falwell, the polarizing prince of the Christian right, liberals saw it as a betrayal of values. When he voted to make President Bush's tax cuts permanent, despite his own past warnings about the country's fiscal mess, budget balancers attacked him as a hypocrite.

When I asked McCain, in between his speeches to the Brussels Forum here, if the criticism bothered him, he answered quietly, "Oh, yeah." He says liberals need to understand that he's not a man of the left, or even the center. "I haven't changed. My record is the same on all issues, which is that of a conservative Republican. Not a liberal Republican, not a moderate Republican." But in the next breath, he lists all the positions he has taken that have made him the darling of centrist Republicans and Democrats, from torture to ethics reform to climate change.

The early question about any presidential candidate is whether he wants the job badly enough to suffer the indignities involved in getting it. In McCain's case, the answer isn't yet clear. He wants it enough to suppress any residual anger over Falwell's role in derailing his 2000 presidential campaign, certainly, but not so much that he can brush off criticism that he's an opportunist for making such expedient political decisions. Some people (Bill Clinton comes to mind) have a knack for making easy compromises on the road to election, but McCain isn't one of them.

"I don't want it that badly," McCain says. "I will continue to do what is right. I will continue to pursue torture, climate change. If that means I can't get the Republican nomination, fine. I've had a happy life. The worst thing I can do is sell my soul to the devil." He explains: "Every time I did something because I thought it would be politically helpful, it turned out badly." As an example, he cites his waffle during the 2000 South Carolina primary, when he said flying the Confederate flag at the state capitol was a state issue.

The most polarizing issue for the country is the Iraq war. Here, as on other fronts, McCain tries to bridge the extremes. He has been one of the sharpest critics of the administration's strategy in Iraq, arguing loudly since 2003 that there weren't enough U.S. troops to stabilize the country. He voiced the generals' anger at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld long before they went public with their dissent. But at the same time, McCain has backed President Bush and the basic U.S. mission in Iraq. Indeed, he still favors putting in more troops, even though he recognizes that is now "like saying, 'I hope it snows in Gila Bend, Arizona.' " A measure of McCain's loyalty to Bush on Iraq is that he won't rule out becoming secretary of defense if Rumsfeld goes. "I would have to assess where I can be most effective," he said, adding: "It's awfully hard to say no to the president of the United States."

McCain is a walking embodiment of the Catch-22 of presidential politics. To get the nomination, a candidate must appeal to his party's activist wing. But even as he buffs his credentials with the base, the candidate inevitably tarnishes his image with the center. A successful campaign almost requires some fibbing -- the candidate is either less extreme than he's telling his party's base, or more extreme than he's telling the general public. The trick is not to get caught -- not to be too obvious in the tactical compromises that are necessary in the marathon race of a presidential campaign.

Part of McCain's appeal is that he seems to straddle such partisan political calculations. He's the victim of torture who opposes torture, the man caught in the "Keating Five" ethics scandal who insists on reform, the critic of Iraq policy who insists that America must win the war, the conservative who is beloved by moderates. A McCain candidacy, if he makes the formal decision next year to run, will be rooted in his image as a man of principle. But it will also be something of a balancing act -- one that the candidate himself is likely to find uncomfortable.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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