McCain Weighs Options Amid Setbacks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 5, 1998; Page A01
Some politicians can only imagine the negative ads that will be aired against them if they run for president. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has already seen them.
They came in the estimated $40 million lobbying barrage financed by the tobacco companies and other opponents of "the McCain tobacco tax bill" that was blocked in the Senate last month. When McCain appeared on radio talk shows in Arizona or spoke in other states, he could hear echoes of the tobacco industry attacks from Republicans disillusioned by his sponsorship of a bill that would have raised the price of cigarettes by $1.10 a pack.
"On talk shows, people would call up and they would unwittingly parrot those [ads]," McCain said. " 'What's happening to you, John McCain?' " There wasn't "any doubt" in his mind, McCain added, that the tobacco battle has had a "significant effect" on his image as a conservative.
McCain has been lionized in the media and elsewhere for his battles to reform campaign finance laws and reduce teenage smoking. But the past few months have been unusually difficult for him. The tobacco bill alienated members of his own party and blew up in his face. A tasteless joke at a GOP fund-raiser damaged his good-guy image and prompted an abject apology to President Clinton and his family. Republicans grumble privately that the frequently quoted McCain is overexposed.
As he looks toward reelection this fall and to the possibility of a presidential campaign in 2000, McCain must confront the question of whether a Republican who has battled his party so vigorously over the past two years can turn around and successfully seek its presidential nomination.
The tobacco fight has had "a sobering effect" on his thinking about a presidential campaign of his own in 2000, he says. But in the next breath, he leaves little doubt that he will continue to take on unpopular fights, rather than pull back and repair relations with some people on the right.
"I don't have time to do things for the sake of a gesture," he said during an interview in his office shortly before Congress left town for its July recess. "I've got too many things to worry about and do. I've been in office for 16 years. That is time to establish my credentials. If people want to question those credentials, they have every right to do so. But I can't change the way I am or change my priorities or change what I think is important."
McCain never expected to be in this position. A few months ago, he had skillfully managed to move the tobacco bill out of the Senate Commerce Committee that he chairs on a 19 to 1 vote. It was a testament inside the committee to both his leadership and the affection many of his colleagues Democrat and Republican have for him.
Once on the Senate floor, however, the measure was quickly morphed into the second coming of Clinton's national health care plan a big government proposal that would boost taxes and enlarge the federal bureaucracy. Republicans ferociously turned against the bill and its sponsor. Among the leaders of the opposition was Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who also may run in 2000. He told cheering Iowa GOP activists, "Washington is more addicted to taxes than smokers to nicotine. It's time for our party to say no more taxes, period." It is the kind of line that may be heard again, should McCain become a candidate.
McCain has taken the defeat hard, defending what he called his "solid record of support for lowering taxes and opposing wasteful spending" while lashing out at the tobacco industry and his own party in Op-Ed pieces. "Some Republicans might be vulnerable to the charge that their party is in the pocket of tobacco companies," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
In the middle of the tobacco fight, McCain attended a GOP fund-raiser at a Washington restaurant, where he told a truly insensitive joke involving the first family and Attorney General Janet Reno. When it became public, he quickly sent an abject letter of apology to the president, although he did not immediately apologize to Reno.
"Obviously, I thought it was some way of being funny. It wasn't funny; it was stupid and cruel," McCain said. "In all due respect, I can't analyze it for you except to say it was stupid, cruel and insensitive, and I've apologized as profusely as I know how, so I don't know what else I can do."
White House officials, who like McCain, chose not to criticize him publicly in part to prevent the joke from attaining wider circulation and bringing even more embarrassment to the president and his family. But McCain was sharply criticized in the media back home.
McCain long has had a reputation as a Republican with a streak of independence who has prided himself on taking on fights others ducked and speaking the truth even when it hurt. He pushed for the gift ban in Congress, has fought against Pentagon pork and supported Clinton in his policy of normalizing relations with Vietnam, where he spent six years as a prisoner of war.
He is a genuine hero to many Americans, especially to conservative audiences. But his leadership on campaign finance reform and the tobacco legislation has left bruises within his party. Even some admirers fear he is in danger of crossing the line between political maverick and political renegade.
"I can't be objective as to what people think of me," McCain said with a clear sense of aggravation over the fallout from the tobacco fight. "I'm 61," he added a moment later. "I have to do things that I think are my obligation. That doesn't mean I ignore public opinion or the views of my constituents. I try to take those into very serious consideration, and I think over the years I have represented the people of Arizona."
McCain has no regrets about the campaign finance battle that he continues to wage. The system is rotten, he said, and will produce scandals until it is reformed. Tobacco is a different story, a fight he said he took on reluctantly because he was chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over it.
"On campaign finance reform," he said, "I think that people felt that I had honestly held views, although I certainly would understand if there was resentment because it's very personal, threatening basically the status quo on something as important as people's elections. On the tobacco bill, I didn't ask for it. I didn't seek the tobacco bill. It was given to me."
When McCain was asked long before the tobacco bill went down to defeat to describe his conservative philosophy, he said, "I think it has a streak of libertarianism. I think the best government is the least government." What about the tobacco bill, he was asked? "The tobacco issue obviously is one that there's a certain amount of discomfort that I have because we are increasing the role of government. . . . But there is a real problem out there, and I don't know how you address it otherwise."
Throughout his career in the House and Senate, McCain has been hard to pigeonhole politically. "I don't know that you can put him in a box," said Jay Smith, a GOP consultant who long has worked in McCain's campaigns. "He's obviously not afraid to play the role of a maverick. He's not afraid to challenge his party leadership on issues he cares about. He can be critical of the president but also can work with the president to achieve his goals. He's very hard to stereotype."
Some Republicans see in McCain an ideal blend of attributes for someone interested in national office. Said one veteran GOP strategist: "He is for a strong national defense and against pork barrel spending, he's willing to stand up to the tobacco industry, he's taken on campaign finance. He's still got time to develop a strong moral issue or two. That's a pretty good basket of goods to launch a national campaign."
Smith noted that the tobacco fight would not linger in a way that would hurt McCain in the presidential primaries. "Advertising is effective, but it is short-lived," he said. "By February 2000, no one will remember that the tobacco industry spent $40 million in a 30-day period."
McCain is not so sanguine, however.
Other Republicans wonder whether McCain's philosophy is broad enough to unite a divided party. "I think it's a very individual conservatism," said one Republican with close ties to Capitol Hill. "Sometimes that means appearing not conservative at all. . . . It doesn't cast its net wide enough to capture all the flanks of the Republican Party right now."
Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who ran an unsuccessful campaign for president with McCain's support in 1996 and then found himself on the opposite side of the tobacco fight, knows what may lie ahead for his friend.
"John is who he is," Gramm said, "and the advantage of having values and a philosophy and convictions is that it's like an anchor wedged in the rocks. The wind and the rain don't blow you away, but if the tide rises you sink. . . . Obviously what John has to offer is basically integrity a willingness to take on tough issues, unpopular issues. Is that what the American people want in a president? I don't know."
Such talk makes McCain grow impatient. He says he won't think seriously about running for president until he is safely past his reelection campaign this fall, although he is moving around the country and working to broaden his connections within the party. He is by his own account a fiercely competitive person, and the presidency is the ultimate challenge for any politician. Many Republicans believe he will not duck this fight.
In April, McCain gave the keynote address at the dedication of the new prisoner-of-war museum in Andersonville, Ga. As he rode to the event, he talked about his experience in the prison camp in North Vietnam. "One of the things this experience taught me really was the transience of everything," he said. "It doesn't mean I've become a fatalist, but it does mean you've got to seize the moment. You seize the moment, right now. . . . Because one of my days I'm going to be down at the old soldier's home with my feet up on the railing, and I'm going to say one thing. 'Did I do what I thought was right?' "
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company