Razing McCain

In South Carolina, the National Right to Life Committee ran radio ads bludgeoning Arizona Senator John McCain. "If you want a strongly pro-life president," the ads said, "don't support John McCain." But McCain has never voted for abortion and until this election has always been known as a pro-life senator. Why the attack ad? The reason is that McCain has sponsored campaign finance reform, which the National Right to Life Committee adamantly opposes. But instead of criticizing McCain for backing a measure that is popular, even among many Republican voters, the committee has portrayed him as being the patron saint of baby killers.

The committee, of course, denies this tactic, but if you look at its Web site and click on its position on campaign finance reform, you won't find articles defending soft money; you'll find criticisms of McCain's position on abortion.

Join the conversation!

Discuss this article in
Political Prospects,
part of The American Prospect's Online Forums.

In Washington almost every conservative organization and Republican politician is out to get McCain. The Washington Times, Human Events, and The American Spectator treat him as if he were Bill Clinton's cousin. The Republican leadership can't conceal their dislike of him. And organizations ranging from the Christian Coalition to Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform have harshly criticized him and even have run ads against him. Michael Farris, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association and a prominent member of the Christian right, described the former war hero as someone "too ignorant and too corrupt to be president."

A lot of this sturm und drang is about campaign finance reform, but it is also rooted in what the conservative movement in Washington has become-- or degenerated into. For five years, Washington conservatives and the Republican leadership in Congress have pursued a strategy for retaining Republican control of Congress and for winning the White House. This strategy increasingly centers on fundraising, and McCain, they believe, stands in the way of its success. Now that he is running for president and threatening to defeat Texas Governor George W. Bush, the candidate they have endorsed, they will do anything they can to discredit and defeat him.

The story of these conservative Republicans begins in 1980. After Ronald Reagan won a landslide and Republicans captured the Senate, conservatives had hopes of creating a long-term majority similar to that which New Deal Democrats enjoyed. Like the New Deal Democrats, the Reagan Republicans were more than simply a collection of political consultants, politicians, and lobbyists. Their opposition to Soviet communism abroad and big government at home translated into a positive movement for freedom that united anti-tax groups, the newly emerging religious right, and white ethnic refugees from Democratic liberalism with the Republicans' traditional business clientele. By the decade's end, this larger movement had run aground--the victim, ironically, of the fall of communism and also of economic policies that had led to huge budget and trade deficits. Parts of the conservative movement endured, particularly the religious right, but as the feuding in the Republican camp during the 1992 election showed, they no longer envisaged themselves as parts of a greater whole.

After Bill Clinton won the presidency, conservative Republicans feared that they would be reduced again to an embattled minority. To prevent this, a group of political operatives, journalists, lobbyists, and politicians began meeting in several, interconnected groups to plot a comeback. Key players included Norquist, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, talk show host Rush Limbaugh (who maintained a Washington office), the editors of The American Spectator and The Washington Times, Paul Beckner of Citizens for a Sound Economy, Georgia Senator Paul Coverdell, Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich, and Texas congressmen Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. Norquist convened representatives from many of these groups--including the National Right to Life Committee--at a regular Wednesday meeting. Another group that included business lobbyists met under the auspices of Beckner and Coverdell. During Clinton's first two years, their principal aim was to block the president's proposal for national health insurance by any means necessary, including the spread of scandalous rumors.

In the 1994 election, Gingrich and Armey, with the help of Perot campaign pollster Frank Luntz, organized a campaign based on the proposition, in Armey's words, "that the People's House must be wrested from the grip of special interests." Voters bought this anti-Washington message, but once the Republicans took office, Norquist, Gingrich, DeLay, and Coverdell turned to their own special interests to find a way of retaining their majority. They believed that the Democrats had kept control of Congress even after their programs had lost popular support by maintaining an edge in fundraising. To do this for Republicans, they convened, among other things, a new meeting on Thursdays of Republican congressional leaders, representatives from Norquist's Wednesday group, and business lobbyists from K Street. Their strategy, which Norquist dubbed the "K Street Project," was designed to transform Washington's business PACs and lobbies--and the businesses they represented--into loyal soldiers in the new Republican revolution. In exchange for legislative favors, Gingrich, DeLay, and other congressional leaders expected that the businesses would provide the funds to keep them in office. Meanwhile, Norquist's group, the Christian Coalition, and other Wednesday groups would be rewarded with generous "educational" contracts from the Republican campaign committees. In 1996, Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform received a $4.6 million windfall from soft money contributions to the Republican National Committee.

This new strategy worked admirably during Gingrich's first six months as speaker. While the Republican leadership introduced a spate of controversial bills gutting regulatory agencies, busi-ness contributions more than doubled from what they had been during a comparable period in 1993. But few of the bills passed--not just because of Gingrich's mishandling, but because they provoked popular opposition and defections among junior Republicans. In Clinton's second term, after almost losing the House, the Republicans and their conservative allies tried to reward business contributors through riders rather than through ambitious bills. And the Republican leadership tried to take advantage of White House campaign corruption and the presi-dent's sexual indiscretions. But Clinton survived a spate of hearings and impeachment by the House. By early last year, Norquist's K Street Project was truly foundering.

Many of the groups that had led the charge in 1994-95 were in decline. Prosperity undermined the antitax and property rights groups. The Christian Coalition, the most important of the groups, began to suffer the same fate that Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority had in the mid-1980s. Even before an unfavorable ruling last year from the Internal Revenue Service on its nonprofit status, the organization was hemorrhaging members and money. Like other sectarian movements, it found itself torn between maintaining its purity of heart--and the zeal of its followers--and winning conventional power. It could not do both, and when Reed turned the Christian Coalition into an arm of the Republican National Committee in the 1996 election, it began to crumble at the base. Afterward, Reed resigned, and the organizations' leaders attempted to mobilize a moral crusade against sin in the White House. When Congress failed to remove Clinton, many Christian conservatives became disillusioned with politics altogether and turned inward for salvation. They suffered, as Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has remarked, from "Clinton fatigue fatigue."

The conservative media and operatives also fell on hard times. The American Spectator was crippled by resignations, and Limbaugh lost both audience share and political influence. Norquist became a lobbyist for Microsoft and a controversial figure among the groups he had tried to coordinate. Conservatism had gone from a movement of movements to separate movements and finally to a fundraising cabal aimed at keeping the Republicans in power. It measured politicians not by their devotion to higher conservative ideals, but by their adherence to a narrow agenda set by Norquist and DeLay. It was through this prism that McCain was viewed.

McCain himself was once regarded as an archetypal Reagan Republican and heir to Barry Goldwater. And he remains very conservative on most social and regulatory issues. But chastened by his own experience as one of the Keating Five, he became a proponent of campaign finance reform. His commitment to reform put him in conflict with Norquist's K Street Project. His first heresy was his sponsorship of the McCain-Feingold bill. By eliminating soft money contributions and forcing independent groups that run campaign ads to operate under the same rules as PACs, McCain's bill struck directly at both Republican fundraising and the activities of the groups in Norquist's Wednesday meetings.

McCain then ran afoul of the Senate's Republican leadership over Senator Fred Thompson's hearings into corrupt election practices. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, wanted the hearings lim-ited to the Clinton campaign's transgressions in 1996, but Thompson wanted to extend them to Republican misdeeds and to proposals for campaign finance reform. Thompson was intimidated by Lott, but McCain wasn't. At a private Senate Republican luncheon during the debate over Thompson's mandate, McCain threatened to back a Democratic resolution broadening the inquiry. When several other senators joined him, Lott had to give in to Thompson.

A year later, McCain further offended the congressional Republican leader-ship and its conservative allies by championing a bill to discourage teenage smoking by raising tobacco taxes. By doing this, McCain was targeting the tobacco companies that had been the most loyal soldiers in the new Republican army. During the 1997-98 election cycle, Philip Morris was the largest contributor of soft money to the Republican Party, and RJR Nabisco was third. Finally, last year, McCain again broke ranks with the Senate and House leadership by supporting the right of consumers to sue health maintenance organizations.

By themselves, none of McCain's stands were a betrayal of conservative principles. The right to sue was, after all, an affirmation of private rather than public solutions. And conservatives were against government by special interests, weren't they? But Norquist, DeLay, and other conservative strategists had reduced conservatism to support for their fundraising agenda. Granting individuals the right to sue rewarded the pro-Democratic trial lawyers; denying them that right rewarded the pro-Republican HMOs. The same kind of logic dictated Norquist and DeLay's support for Bush in this year's presidential race.

Few of the strategists behind the K Street Project enjoyed warm relations with Bush--DeLay and Bush were barely on speaking terms. Bush's positions on abortion, taxes, and spending were similar to McCain's. Bush had even reluctantly agreed to granting Texans the right to sue HMOs. But Bush, unlike McCain, was a foe of campaign finance reform and he was the business lobbyists' first choice for president. Unlike more conservative candidates like former Vice President Dan Quayle, he also seemed to have a good chance of winning. By last summer, the Republican leadership had enthusiastically endorsed him, and most of the key operatives from the Wednesday groups--including Norquist and Reed--were working for his election, even if they had not officially declared their support. Coverdell became Bush's man in the Senate, and former Congressman Bill Paxon, who was close to the House leadership, became one of Bush's chief fundraisers on K Street.

As it became apparent that McCain posed a real challenge to Bush, these politicians and operatives sprang into action. Last October, Norquist's group, the National Right to Life Committee (which was awarded that month a $250,000 grant from the National Republican Congressional Committee), the NRA, the National Right to Work Committee, the American Conserva-tive Union, and the Christian Coalition held a joint press conference to denounce McCain. Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform ran ads in New Hampshire showing McCain's face morphing into Clinton's.

McCain does have some support among Republican politicians, but they are mavericks like Thompson and South Carolina congressmen Lindsey Graham and Mark Sanford. Graham and Sanford, who is retiring this year to keep his commitment to term limits, see campaign finance reform as consistent with the anti-special-interests message of the Contract with America. A few conservative journalists and intellectuals also respect McCain for his military record and his grasp of foreign affairs. But they are a tiny minority in Washington. In official Republican and conservative circles, McCain occupies a position similar to that which George McGovern occupied in the Democratic Party in 1972. And if he were to win the nomination, he could suffer a similar fate at their hands.

After McCain routed Bush in New Hampshire, William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, said that the result showed that "the conservative movement, which accomplished great things over the past quarter-century, is finished." By strict standards, the conservative movement that brought Reagan to power expired 10 years ago. The "Gingrich revolution" of 1994 was an Indian Summer comparable to the Democrats' post-Watergate successes in 1974 and 1976. But to the extent that Norquist, DeLay, and others harbored illusions about reviving the conservative movement through fundraising, McCain's victory in New Hampshire showed how abysmally they have failed. McCain might not get the nomination--Bush's lead in dollars and organizations is enormous--and his success to date probably won't inspire a new conservative movement, but it has certainly demonstrated the shallowness and the depravity of the old one. ¤


You may also like