John McCain used to be Lincoln Chafee’s kind of Republican.
In 2001, Mr. McCain and Mr. Chafee were the only two Republican senators to vote against George Bush’s tax cuts.
Now, Mr. McCain favors making them permanent, and Mr. Chafee thinks the Arizona senator has lost the right to call himself a maverick.
“Technically, the definition of maverick in the dictionary is an unbranded calf, which is appropriate—you got no brand on your flank,” said Mr. Chafee, a former Republican moderate from Rhode Island who lost his seat to a Democrat in 2006 and switched to independent. “McCain just made a calculated decision to pander. And he got a brand on his flank. The ‘R’ brand. My own feeling is that credibility is everything and you just get cracks in your credibility when you have to pander to the extent that he has. It’s just not the same John McCain.”
Even as Mr. Obama takes a pounding in the press for breaking an earlier vow to operate within a public campaign financing system—confirming, at least for political observers who weren’t paying much attention to him as he came up through the ranks of the Illinois Democratic firmament, that he is a typically pragmatic politician—Mr. McCain has staked out positions that are guaranteed to damage the unusual reputation for independence on which his campaign, and his career, are premised.
“Each of them has some differences from what you’d expect,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “But neither of them can make a pure case to be the exemplar. It’s not an airtight case on either side.”
The problem for Mr. McCain is that he has more to lose by surrendering his specialness. In a political climate overwhelmingly favorable to Democrats—where Barack Obama has raised record amounts of money, where George Bush is more albatross than lame duck and where a recent Washington Post/ABC poll of Congressional districts showed a Democrat beat a generic Republican 53-38—Mr. McCain needs to be different.
“The question is going to be has McCain burnished his maverick credentials enough,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster not working for any candidate in the race. “Has he reinforced that image enough to withstand a certain onslaught?”
While Mr. McCain continues to stand apart from most of the G.O.P. on campaign finance reform, stem cell research and the closing of Guantánamo Bay, he has since the last presidential election made some unforgettable—and, for some of his oldest fans, incomprehensible—concessions to orthodoxy.
In addition to the Bush tax cuts, which he once said he couldn’t support because “so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us,” he has switched positions on matters related to energy policy, immigration and abortion, among other things.
In 2003, Mr. McCain voted against offshore drilling, but this month, he told reporters “that lifting the moratoria from offshore drilling or oil and natural gas exploration is something that we should place as a very high priority.” (In 2001 and 2006 he voted for drilling in Florida.) And as recently as May he expressed openness to considering a windfall profits tax on the oil industry. A month later he went to Texas and slammed Mr. Obama for a similar proposal.
Mr. McCain sponsored the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill two years ago, which proposed a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that provided a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Conservative Republican voters punished him for it and Mr. McCain has since shifted his emphasis to tightening border security.
Before his first bid for the White House Mr. McCain said he would “not support” the repeal of Roe v. Wade, but now his campaign Web site says it is a “flawed decision that must be overturned.”
Representative Pete King of New York, who endorsed Mr. McCain in 2000 and campaigned with him around the state, remembers the heady days of that campaign—a true insurgency against the conservative Bush restoration that captivated the media.
Mr. King recalled eating donuts on the back of the bus while the candidate held court with reporters, like “sitting in the bar on a Saturday night with a bunch of guys.”
But then, as Mr. King explained, Mr. McCain wasn’t the Republican nominee eight years ago.
“There was a certain romance about the campaign—it was this insurgent campaign, it was the guy on the bus versus the mighty Republican establishment, and I guess in some sense the media fell into that,” said Mr. King. He added, “If some of his positions are more refined or more consolidated I think that is to be expected when you are the party nominee. It’s hard to be the rebel insurgent when you are the nominee of the party.”
Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist and the communications director for Mr. McCain’s 2000 campaign, said that the “realities of a general election” posed risks to the political images of both ge
neral-election candidates, but he also suggested that Mr. McCain in particular suffered from an unrealistic expectation about just how much the candidate could break with his party.
Recalling an interview with a liberal editorial board in 2000, Mr. Schnur said Mr. McCain “talked for quite a long time about campaign finance reform and special interests and soft money, and after about 20 minutes of conversation on those issues, one of the editorial writers leaned over to him and said, ‘Senator, are you sure you are not pro-choice?’”
The McCain campaign argues that Mr. McCain has only changed to reflect the needs of the country and the reality on the ground. He opposed the Bush tax cuts, they say, on the grounds that they didn’t include a corresponding reduction in government spending. They say he opposed offshore drilling because it was a states’ rights issue that had subsequently been resolved. And the spectacular death of his immigration bill on the floor of the Senate—it nearly cost him the nomination—simply caused him to change his mind.