Colin Powell Scuttles McCain's 'Don't Ask' Rationale

Back in the day, when Sen. John McCain used to distinguish himself from his GOP colleagues by taking positions outside the Republican orthodoxy (see campaign-finance reform, immigration, torture), he did so by staking out a reasoned middle ground. But during the "don't ask, don't tell" portion of yesterday's Armed Services Committee hearing, McCain stood out for the opposite reason: he seemed stuck in an outdated, reactionary pose. (Even conservative Orrin Hatch told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell that he's open to the repeal, saying service members shouldn't have to lie about being gay.)

Today, McCain's words are coming back to bite him. Unlike his wife and daughter, both vocal proponents of gay rights, McCain expressed serious reservations about repealing the policy. Michael Shear notes in The Washington Post that stance seems at odds with previous statements:

"The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy,' then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it," McCain said in October 2006 to an audience of Iowa State University students. That day arrived Tuesday, with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen testifying to senators after President Obama's announcement that he would seek a congressional repeal of the 15-year-old policy.

During the hearing, McCain told the committee that "the reason why I supported the policy to start with is because Gen. Colin Powell, who was then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the one that strongly recommended we adopt this policy in the Clinton administration. I have not heard General Powell or any of the other military leaders reverse their position." But today, Powell released a statement doing exactly that. "In the almost 17 years since the 'don't ask, don't tell' legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed. I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen," his statement read.

McCain's treatment of this issue is odd, and, I'd argue, uncharacteristic. Some may put it down to the fact that he's facing a serious primary challenge for the first time in years, coming in the form of Minutemen founder and talk-radio host J. D. Hayworth. But that seems off to me. The economy and immigration will probably be the biggest issues in that race, and given the large shift in public support for repealing "don't ask," I can't see it playing a big role in the campaign. Others, including Harry Reid, seem to think McCain is just being bitter about his electoral loss and is opposing the administration out of spite. But late last year, McCain told me he meant every word he said about trying to find common ground with Obama. He didn't want to be a sore loser, like others who remained unnamed.

So is he just out of touch? Is he aggravated that he's not the person taking the lead on changing military policy? Or is he genuinely becoming more conservative? Evidence seems to be mounting for that last option.