Is McCain a Conservative?

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, January 31, 2008

As John McCain neared his momentous primary election victory in Florida after a ferocious campaign questioning his conservative credentials, right-wingers buzzed over word that he had privately suggested that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was too conservative. In response, McCain said he recalled saying no such thing and added that Alito was a "magnificent" choice. In fact, multiple sources confirm that the senator made negative comments about Alito nine months ago.

McCain, as the "straight talk" candidate, says things off the cuff that he sometimes cannot remember exactly later. Elements of the Republican Party's right wing, uncomfortable with McCain as their prospective presidential nominee, brought the Alito comments to the surface long after the fact for two contrasting reasons. One was a desperate effort to keep McCain from winning in Florida. The other was to get the party's potential nominee on record about key issues before he is nominated.

Those key issues do not include McCain's firmly held nonconservative positions on campaign finance reform and global warming. Rather, conservatives among the second group want two assurances: first, that McCain would veto any tax increase passed by a Democratic Congress; second, that he would not emulate Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush in naming liberal Supreme Court justices such as John Paul Stevens and David Souter.

That was the background for conservative John Fund's Wall Street Journal online column the day before Florida voted. Fund wrote that McCain "has told conservatives he would be happy to appoint the likes of Chief Justice Roberts to the Supreme Court. But he indicated he might draw the line on a Samuel Alito because 'he wore his conservatism on his sleeve.' " In a conference call with bloggers that day, McCain said, "I don't recall a conversation where I would have said that." He was "astonished" by the Alito quote, he said, and he repeatedly says at town meetings, "We're going to have justices like Roberts and Alito."

I found what McCain could not remember: a private, informal chat with conservative Republican lawyers shortly after he announced his candidacy in April 2007. I talked to two lawyers who were present whom I have known for years and who have never misled me. One is neutral in the presidential race, and the other recently endorsed Mitt Romney. Both said they were not Fund's source, and neither knew I was talking to the other. They gave me nearly identical accounts, as follows:

"Wouldn't it be great if you get a chance to name somebody like Roberts and Alito?" one lawyer commented. McCain replied, "Well, certainly Roberts." Jaws were described as dropping. My sources cannot remember exactly what McCain said next, but their recollection is that he described Alito as too conservative.

Meanwhile, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist is worried because a prominent journalist informed him that a few years ago McCain said to him, off the record, that as president he would have to raise taxes. More recently McCain has told me, on the record, that he would never support a tax increase and, consequently, favors making the Bush tax cuts permanent.

Norquist and McCain have a stormy relationship. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, McCain in 2005 subpoenaed records of Norquist's dealings with now-imprisoned Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Denying wrongdoing, Norquist said that McCain held a grudge against him because he campaigned against the senator's 2000 presidential bid. Norquist told me that he has no animus toward McCain and only wants assurances that McCain opposes higher taxes.

According to exit polls, voters calling themselves "very conservative" supported Romney in Florida by two to one, and McCain still won in a state described as a microcosm of America. McCain survived a scathing conservative talk-radio assault led by Rush Limbaugh. Romney's appeal to the right on immigration backfired, triggering Sen. Mel Martinez's endorsement of McCain and a five-to-one margin for him in the Cuban community.

McCain as the Republican nominee would need those "very conservative" voters. He will encounter some of them at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington Feb. 7-9. His campaign asked yesterday for McCain to be able to speak there after rejecting an invitation to last year's meeting. At CPAC, he might well consider providing "straight talk" about Samuel Alito and promising to veto any tax increase passed by a Democratic Congress.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company