John McCain: How straight a shooter?

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist, 1/27/2000

t is not hard to understand the passion that John McCain inspires in his admirers.

Among all the candidates in the race for president, only McCain can say, with Walt Whitman, ''I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there.'' More than most in public life, he knows the meaning of pain, and that is not a knowledge to be dismissed lightly. If anyone is the un-Clinton, McCain is: At the worst time of his life he behaved with great courage. In the crucible of a POW camp, he learned the meaning of sacrifice and honor. Neither quality is associated with the self-indulgent narcissist who lives in the White House now.

I admire those who have endured grievous suffering without losing their own decency. My father, who survived Auschwitz, is such a man. To elect such a man as president after eight years of Bill Clinton, a man perpetually fascinated with his own appetites, would be a cleansing experience. But it takes more than wartime suffering to fit a man for the presidency. What is the case for the McCain campaign? Is there a reason, the Hanoi Hilton aside, for voters in the Republican primaries to prefer him over George W. Bush or Steve Forbes?

For GOP voters who want a solid establishment candidate, the obvious choice is Bush. He is a proven vote-getter who campaigns with ease; his political inclination is loosely conservative; and although he - like his father - disdains ''the vision thing,'' he is advised by some of his party's brightest luminaries.

Republicans seeking a candidate who will run on Ronald Reagan's ideology - greater freedom, smaller government, lower taxes, free markets - can choose Forbes. True, he lacks experience in public office. His philosophy of government, though, is informed and clear, and his campaign so far has been both focused and mostly pander-free. As for Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, they offer themselves to voters who care most about social issues - abortion especially - and moral revival.

But for which Republicans does McCain speak?

His signature issue, campaign finance ''reform,'' would sharply curtail free speech and enhance the influence of the media. Far from being a Republican or conservative issue, McCain's bill would hurt Republicans and conservatives - who particularly depend on advertising to get their message out - the most.

McCain's top Senate priority in recent years was his crusade to slam a $500 billion ''settlement'' on tobacco companies, supposedly to recoup the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. It was a phony rationale: Government takes in far more money in cigarette taxes than it pays out to treat sick smokers on Medicaid. And since when has the GOP stood for beating up an industry for making and selling a lawful product?

''I'm a proud conservative,'' McCain said recently when I asked why he is running to the left. ''I have not ever voted for a tax increase. I'm for less government.... I'd put my conservative credentials up against anybody.'' But the impact of his tobacco legislation would have been a painful new tax on smokers, who are more likely to be found near the botton of the income ladder. And the tobacco and campaign finance bills together would have meant an enormous expansion of government power - exactly the reverse of what McCain claims to want.

McCain holds himself out as a blunt and candid man, a candidate who tells people ''the truth - not what they want to hear, but what I think they should hear.'' His campaign bus is nicknamed the ''Straight Talk Express,'' and there certainly are times when he seems like the only straight shooter in town. When almost no other Republican would make the case for using force to stop the Serbs' assault on Kosovo, for example, McCain did so with unvarnished clarity. In Iowa, he alone refused to kowtow to the ethanol lobby.

But is it straight shooting to denounce the Confederate flag as ''offensive in many, many ways ... a symbol of racism and slavery'' one day, then endorse it as ''a symbol of heritage'' the next? Or to hold himself out as an opponent of racial preferences, yet tell a convention of minority journalists that if he becomes president, he will ''absolutely and unequivocally'' name an Asian-American to his Cabinet? Do straight-talking Republicans demonize other Republicans' tax-cut proposals with specious class-warfare rhetoric (''We give the millionaire a $2,000 refund. Governor Bush gives him $50,000'')?

Ask McCain about abortion and he has a pat answer: ''I'm for repeal of Roe v. Wade.'' But in August he told the San Francisco Chronicle, ''I'd love to see a point'' where Roe v. Wade ''is irrelevant and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade.'' Straight talk?

I don't think this is hypocrisy; I think it is ideological incoherence. For all his fine attributes, McCain seems to lack any philosophical core. When he talks about honor and duty, he is unerring; when he talks about issues, he is all over the place. It is good to hear a presidential candidate who treats questions of character seriously. But questions of policy and governance are vital, too. The senator makes a fine role model. I'm not sure he would make a fine president.

Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist.