John McCain’s GOP converts
Posted on June 4, 2008
(This originally appeared in The Politico)
I think I know how a Christian convert feels in Saudi Arabia. When I worked for the House Republican leadership during the 2000 presidential primary, I voted for John McCain.
I was then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s spokesman at the time, and while he had his issues with McCain’s chief rival, George W. Bush, it was clear that Bush was his choice. Bush also had the backing of the rest of the House Republican leadership.
On the day of the 2000 New Hampshire primary, we had a leadership meeting in the speaker’s office.
Rumors were rife that Bush was getting his derrière kicked by McCain in the state, and most of the meeting’s participants were down in the dumps. I was pretty happy about the results, but I kept those thoughts to myself.
Most House Republican leaders at the time distrusted McCain because of his populist leanings. His fight against the tobacco industry, a crusade in which he teamed with liberal Democrats, seemed to many anti-corporate and anti-Republican at its core.
I ended up voting for McCain in the Virginia primary because I didn’t like the Bush campaign’s rough-and-tumble tactics in South Carolina. But my vote didn’t help McCain in Virginia.
After Bush won the 2000 election, I began to share some of the speaker’s concerns about the senior senator from Arizona. McCain seemed to relish joining with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the former Democratic vice presidential nominee, on climate change and campaign finance legislation while generally poking the president and House Republicans in the eye at every available moment. There were rumors that McCain actually thought about changing parties.
McCain started talking about the evils of the prescription drug industry. He advocated policies we thought were crazy, such as reimporting drugs from Canada. Republican leaders liked the prescription drug industry because it made the drugs that actually save lives — and we thought that reimportation would lead to drug safety issues.
Early on in the Bush administration, McCain went off the reservation on tax cuts. After the Sept. 11 attacks, McCain opposed further tax cuts, saying the American people needed to sacrifice to help pay for the war. Hastert grew so frustrated with McCain that at a press event, under prodding from Fox News producer Jim Mills, he questioned McCain’s understanding of sacrifice, momentarily forgetting McCain’s long tenure in the Hanoi Hilton. We later put out a statement honoring McCain’s service in the Vietnam War while still disagreeing with him on tax policy.
McCain crossed swords again with Hastert on the Boeing tanker issue. The Air Force needed new refueling tankers to replace an aging fleet that had endangered the safety of our troops. A bipartisan group of members of Congress, including Hastert, wanted Boeing to build the tankers because it is an American company that could get it done quickly. Boeing had recently moved its headquarters to Chicago, which gave Hastert an even bigger incentive to deliver for the company. McCain denounced it as a sweetheart deal and called for an investigation. His efforts stopped the deal in its tracks. Eventually, Northrop Grumman, teamed with a European company, EADS, got the contract.
It was with campaign finance reform, however, that McCain and the House GOP leadership had their biggest clash. The House Republican leaders thought that the campaign finance reforms advocated by McCain would diminish the power of the political parties (especially the Republican Party), increase the influence of labor unions and other outsiders, and hurt the GOP fundraising advantage. McCain thought it would help take money out of politics. Despite the urgent requests of the speaker, President Bush sided with McCain and signed the bill in early 2002, perhaps with the expectation that it would be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But that never happened, and Republicans were stuck with campaign finance laws that have dramatically diminished the power of the political parties and increased the power of shadowy groups funded by people like George Soros.
McCain’s maverick image was crafted in those early years of the Bush administration, when the senator clashed repeatedly with the House Republican leadership and, occasionally, with Bush. In the view of House Republican leaders, McCain was all too willing to team with Democrats in both the House and the Senate to stick it to them.
But all of the House Republican leaders from that period — Hastert, Majority Leaders Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, and Rep. Thomas Reynolds — have departed the stage or are about to leave, while McCain is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. And McCain has done his part to mend fences with most House Republicans. He was right on the Iraq war, being the first to complain about the incompetence of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the need to increase our presence in Iraq.
He has come out strongly against tax increases, enough to earn the endorsement of Grover Norquist.
And looking back now, McCain was right on some of the issues on which he clashed with House Republicans. He was right in his instincts to be more bipartisan. McCain was right to want to reform earmarks. He was right about the political potency of climate change. He was right to call for more intense oversight. He was right to team up with Lieberman, who has turned out to be a true patriot who cares intensely about protecting this country from terrorism.
Now McCain finds himself in an interesting position, as savior of the Grand Old Party, and House Republicans in particular, amid the doldrums of three straight special election losses in former party strongholds (including Hastert’s old Illinois district).
Historical irony being what it is, a new crop of House Republican leaders are now trying to tie their fortunes to McCain. They understand that the man their previous leaders so loved to hate may be the only one who can save the Republican brand, badly damaged by an unpopular president and a seemingly endless series of GOP scandals.
So, love him or hate him, the House Republicans have now converted to the McCain vision of a reformed party. They see him as their only salvation this November.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group,a strategic advocacy firm.