John McCain: Can He Be a Falwell Republican?

By Byron York
Sunday, May 7, 2006

Last October, J. David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist who doubles as a strategist for conservative Republican candidates, polled 450 South Carolina GOP voters, asking: "When it comes to politics, do you consider yourself closer to George W. Bush or John McCain?" Sixty-three percent picked Bush. Twenty-one percent said it made no difference. And just 16 percent chose McCain.

The message? "I think McCain has a lot of work to do if he's going to win here," Woodard told me recently. "There is a long-term memory, especially with Christian conservatives, about his comments after the 2000 race."

Woodard was referring to a famous speech McCain delivered a week after he lost the South Carolina primary to Bush, in which the Arizona senator denounced Jerry Falwell, along with Pat Robertson, Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton, as "agents of intolerance" who were "corrupting influences" in American politics. The next day, McCain hit Falwell and Robertson even harder, blasting them for what he called "the evil influence that they exercise over the Republican Party."

McCain later retracted the "evil" part, but Christian conservatives have not forgotten. Now as he prepares for another presidential run, this time as the GOP's presumptive front-runner, McCain must try to undo the damage he inflicted upon himself six years ago. Next weekend, the senator will travel to Lynchburg, Va., to deliver the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University -- setting off intense speculation that he is pandering to the right in an effort to secure the Republican nomination. "Are you freaking out on us?" asked Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show" and an avowed McCain admirer. "Are you going into the crazy-base world?"

No, he isn't. Falwell approached McCain, not the other way around. And interviews with both suggest that it is Falwell, not McCain, who is more willing to be flexible. McCain's visit to Liberty University is indeed a conciliatory signal not just to Falwell but to millions of Christian conservatives who question the depth of McCain's commitment on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. But it is as much a chance for Falwell and his supporters to assert their influence in the Republican Party -- an influence that has waned in recent years.

If McCain's outreach succeeds, the effort could pay off not only in South Carolina, where the senator's defeat in the 2000 primary doomed his presidential bid, but also in Iowa, a state with many politically active Christian conservatives and a crucial role once again in the next election. In short, Liberty University could help make John McCain the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.

Last September, with a McCain candidacy on the horizon and the senator out-polling most other potential Republican candidates, Falwell called the senator and asked for an appointment. The two had not spoken for years, since before the 2000 election.

The McCain camp was surprised, to put it mildly. "I don't know that any of us thought that we could pick up the phone and call down to Lynchburg and have a discussion," said John Weaver, McCain's longtime political adviser. "I don't know that we would have been bold enough." Yet when Falwell reached out ("A call out of the heavens, out of the blue," Weaver termed it), McCain was ready to accept. On Sept. 20, they spoke.

"I made it clear that I wanted to talk to him about the future, not the past," Falwell told me. "It took about five minutes in the meeting to bury all our little differences of six years ago, and then we talked about the future."

McCain recalls: "He said, 'I'd like to put our differences behind us.' " And the senator -- who insists he's long over his own bad feelings from 2000 -- was happy to go along. "The hardest thing I've had in my life -- and I have to tell myself this every day -- is, don't hold a grudge. After I lost that election, I had 10 wonderful days of feeling sorry for myself. Then I woke up one night and said, 'Stop this.' "

Later, Falwell asked McCain to come to Liberty University. The trip has been portrayed as the beginning of a rapprochement, but in fact the reconciliation is already well underway. When I asked Falwell if he could see himself supporting McCain for president, he quickly answered, "Of course. If he is the candidate, he'll certainly have my support." That doesn't mean McCain will be Falwell's favorite in the primary, but it does mean there probably will be no 2000-style war.

Theirs is a reconciliation based on mutual need. For his part, McCain needs the support of at least some Christian conservatives. Even though they aren't as organized as they used to be -- just look at the greatly weakened Christian Coalition -- they're still powerful in states such as South Carolina, and they still respect Falwell. "You'd have real problems winning if they didn't support you," Woodard says. "And if they're united against you, you're in trouble." That's what happened to McCain in 2000.

But Falwell needs McCain, too. Many conservatives in Washington, especially younger ones, roll their eyes at the mention of Falwell's name. Nobody listens to him anymore, they say; his time has passed, his audience is shrinking, and he has been supplanted by younger, less overtly political evangelists such as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. An overstatement, perhaps, but Falwell is indeed much diminished from the figure he was 15 years ago. That's why a high-profile visit from McCain is so valuable to him. "When a guy who called you an agent of intolerance comes down and kisses the ring, it's both a symbolic and a substantive gesture that you and the constituency you represent are vital," says one GOP strategist. "That's never a bad signal to send."

There has been much discussion about McCain changing his positions to win the support of conservative Republicans. But the senator -- antiabortion, pro-traditional marriage, pro-war, pro-fiscal responsibility -- doesn't need to change his positions. Rather, he must convince conservatives that he really means them.

Many Christian conservatives seem willing to give McCain another chance, but they're wary. They worry that despite his solid voting record against abortion rights, he is not deep-down, unwaveringly on their side. "They're going to say, 'You're pro-life? Let's talk. What about stem-cell research?' " Woodard says. "They'll say, 'You're a Republican, you're pro-life -- well, we kind of expect that. Tell us about the depth of your conviction.' "

As an unannounced candidate, McCain now speaks mostly in generalities. But when talking to conservative Republicans, he pushes the right buttons to assure them that he's on their side on abortion and other cultural issues. Instead of getting into specifics, he stresses that he would appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court. During a trip to South Carolina in January, McCain met privately with Barry Wynn, former head of the state Republican Party and a top Bush fundraiser. Wynn told me McCain made no promises -- but he still got the message across. "He said it primarily by just talking about why John Roberts and Samuel Alito were ideal choices," Wynn said. "He sings their praises to a high pitch; it's kind of two and two equals four; you certainly get the idea that these are the kind of people he would nominate."

If McCain wins conservatives' trust on abortion, he might still face skepticism on same-sex marriage. "I told him that there were two deal breakers with religious conservatives," Falwell says of his meeting with McCain. "One is the life issue, and the other is the family issue. Support for the traditional husband-and-wife family is not nice, it is necessary for us."

At the very least, that could pose a challenge for a senator who voted against the federal marriage amendment (FMA) in 2004 and promises to do so again when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) brings it up in June -- just in time to become an issue in the midterm elections. But McCain may find a way to finesse the trouble.

McCain says he will vote against FMA because he doesn't believe marriage should be a nationwide issue -- at least not now. "I'm a federalist," he told me. "I believe that a state ought to decide what happens within that state. I've always held that position on a broad variety of issues." But as he stands ready to vote against the FMA, McCain is cosponsoring a state amendment on the ballot in Arizona that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Furthermore, he assured Falwell that if federal courts overrule the states on their various defense-of-marriage laws, he would change his position and support the FMA.

When I asked Falwell if he was satisfied with McCain's position, he said, without hesitating, "I am." He added: "I wish he would shortcut it, because I don't think there's any question that the federal courts are one by one going to overrule the state amendments." So, though he would like more, Falwell has given some manner of blessing to a candidate who will vote against the FMA. That's quite an accomplishment for McCain.

On other issues important to the GOP's conservative base, there's no need for much finesse. McCain is a hawk's hawk on Iraq and has essentially promised to be the last man standing in favor of the war there. "The consequences of failure are so catastrophic that the challenges to our security over time are hard to imagine," he told me.

He's a hawk on cutting federal spending, too. On April 28, after the Senate succeeded in killing a $15 million program to encourage Americans to eat more seafood, McCain was almost jumping with joy. "We won one!" he said as he picked up the phone for our interview. "We won one!"

On immigration, McCain probably will satisfy conservatives when he advocates building "not a fence, but a wall" along high-traffic areas of the U.S. border with Mexico -- and disappoint them when he advocates, along with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a program of near-amnesty for illegal immigrants already here. That could hurt him badly with a Republican electorate that wants tough enforcement combined with no amnesty. But McCain might be saved by the fact that, at least so far, there's no GOP candidate with a position that satisfies the great majority of Republicans.

The remarkable thing at this point is that McCain even has a chance to win over the conservatives who opposed him so strongly -- and who found themselves on the receiving end of his anger -- six years ago. They like much of what they hear from him, and they value the loyalty he showed in 2004 when he campaigned hard for Bush's reelection. These days, as the president's popularity falls and some political analysts expect Republicans to run away from him, that's the kind of with-you-in-tough-times allegiance that wins points in the South Carolina GOP.

"I think people are willing to give him a fresh look," Wynn told me. "People have walked out of those meetings [with McCain] feeling better than they thought they would feel when they went in. I think people are very open-minded."

Byron York covers the White House for National Review and is the author of "The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy" (Crown Forum).

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