"Would I Stay True if…My Personal Ambitions Seemed… Achievable?"

McCain warned us six years ago that he might change if he ever got close to the White House


In 1998, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) faced a tough re-election fight from a Republican congressman named Mark Neumann. Feingold, co-author of the eventually successful (in passage, not in impact) Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, decided to put his soft money where his mouth was, refusing any of the then-legal stuff to be spent on his campaign, even while outside groups contributed $2 million in soft money for Neumann. After sweating bullets, Feingold eked out a win by less than 40,000 votes.

This demonstration of principle over politics impressed the hell out of Feingold's campaign reform partner, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

"I thought about that experience when I decided that I would try to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2000," McCain wrote in his 2002 political memoir Worth the Fighting For. "I knew I was a long shot, and given the curious place I now occupied in the affections of much of the Republican establishment, and the causes I had come to be identified with, I didn't expect much help, financial or otherwise, from party regulars."

The rest of this revealing passage should be mandatory reading for every morning-after media weeper who frets about where "the real McCain" went in the fall of 2008: "I thought about Russ's principled risk in his reelection campaign and wondered if I would have the guts to protect my integrity even if it meant lengthening the odds against me. I didn't worry that I would betray my positions or myself as long as I remained a dark horse. But would I stay true if by some unexpected turn of events my personal ambitions seemed a little more achievable? There was no point in worrying about that, I decided. I was unlikely to get close enough to the prize where such temptations would become a concern."

The rich are indeed very different than you and me; rich politicians like McCain even more so. But how many grown-ups do you know who honestly don't know whether they would hold onto their principles if they got within shouting distance of a lifelong goal? That's not the worry of a settled man who automatically puts "country first"; it's the anxiety of an aging adolescent who knows too well the potential weakness of his knees.

The John McCain that the national press fell in love with (literally) back in 1999-2000 was a John McCain who knew he was going to lose to George W. Bush. The man was openly referring to Bush and the Repblican establishment that overwhelmingly backed the 41st president's son as "the Death Star," in a Republican primary. He called Christian conservatives "agents of intolerance," made speech-stifling (and GOP activist-handcuffing) campaign finance reform his central theme, and thundered against the "false front" of "national prosperity." Non-Republican reporters (including yours truly) might have eaten it up at the time, but it was a strategy designed explicitly for failure, and maybe a little longshot fun.

"My decisions about how I would try to win were made out of political necessity as much as principle," McCain wrote in Worth the Fighting For. He could afford to talk down Iowan ethanol, because he couldn't afford to campaign in Iowa (one of many strategies and political positions that changed between 1999 and 2007). Even his comparative lack of enthusiasm for tax cuts at the time was heavily influenced by political positioning, not necessarily philosophy. "Republican primaries had long featured a bidding war to see which candidate could promise the biggest tax cut," he wrote. "I chose to offer the smallest, targeted to middle- and lower-income families…. Lest anyone think my positions were brave, if self-defeating, honesty obliges me to note that every poll my campaign conducted (and we took as many as could afford) found greater support for paying down the debt than cutting taxes for upper-bracket incomes." Country first!

Above all, McCain campaigned on a promise to "always tell the truth," to avoid "pandering," and to elevate the tone of political discourse. "'Judge all candidates,' I asked [voters], 'by the example we set; by the way we conduct our campaigns; by the way we personally practice politics.'" In 2008, many former McCain supporters have judged him precisely on those criteria, and switched their support to Barack Obama.

Should we care that a politician has so profoundly changed his positions and tactics in an effort to actually win this time around? For me, part of the answer lies within that startling quote above: "[I] wondered if I would have the guts to protect my integrity."

Note how McCain almost sounds like a helpless bystander in that mini-sentence. It's as if campaign politics were a filthy river at flood tide; dip a toe and you're off in the muck. This helps explain both why McCain started getting swept off to "crazy base land" three years ago, and why his apologists in the media could still manage to absolve him of guilt for doing so. It's not the Great Man, they cried, it's that tawdry party beneath him.

But such apologia wears its fatal flaw on its sleeve. You can't be a Great Man on one hand and an unwitting victim on the other.

The tone and results of the McCain campaign cannot be blamed on conflicting advisers, or "crazy base" Republicans yanking their standard-bearer hither and yon. The man who has run such a lackluster, unconvincing, and uninspiring race in 2008 is the exact same guy who seemed so hopelessly interesting in 2000. The only difference is, this time he thought he could win.

When you lack core philosophical belief or interest of your own, stuff like policy positions and campaign strategy are just malleable means to an alluring end. The John McCain we've seen these past two months is, in many senses, the real real McCain: A guy who, just as he worried six years ago, yields to the "temptations" of seeing his "personal ambitions" come tantalizingly close to fruition. We are fortunate we can see him respond to such a test before holding the reins of ultimate power.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason, and author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.