Righting the Straight Talk Express

William B. Plowman / NBC-Getty Images

For John McCain, 2010 must rank as the most frustrating year of his political career. He's been battling to fend off conservative talk-radio host J. D. Hayworth, his challenger in the GOP Arizona Senate primary on Aug. 24. While the latest polls have McCain well ahead after an early scare, the senator has been forced to swing sharply to keep up with his party's rightward-lunging base. In an interview today with Jill Lawrence of Politics Daily, McCain insists: "I have not changed in my positions. I know how popular it is for the Eastern press to paint me as having changed positions. That's not true. I know they're going to continue to say it. It's fundamentally false."

Now, we at the Gaggle have some sympathy. Politicians of all stripes are prone to elasticity at times, nipping and tucking past positions to fit new realities. And there's no doubt that, in Hayworth, McCain is up against a demagogue eager to pound him for every departure from Rush Limbaugh orthodoxy. As McCain's Senate pal Lindsey Graham has said: "John's got a primary. He's got to focus on getting reelected." Does a man like this, who has regularly made character and integrity the hallmark of his political persona, deserve more or less leeway during the contortions of primary season? That's ultimately for voters to judge. Still, for McCain to claim he hasn't changed his positions is the equivalent of claiming black equals white.

1. Climate change: McCain was once the Republicans' leading voice in favor of strong action to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. He called it the "leading environmental issue of our time." And with Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, he cosponsored a bill to introduce a cap-and-trade scheme, essentially enabling companies to buy and sell the right to pollute. But in each of its three iterations—in 2003, 2005, and 2007—the measure failed to pass the Senate. Now McCain has brazenly adopted the Republican cudgel of painting cap-and-trade as a job-killing "cap and tax" that raises the costs of doing business and passes price increases onto consumers. He called the recent attempt to revive cap-and-trade "horrendous."

2. Immigration: In 2006 McCain cosponsored a comprehensive immigration-reform bill with Sen. Ted Kennedy. This contained various border-enforcement measures such as funding for surveillance towers and Border Patrol agents. However, it also proposed a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants already in America: making them pay fines and back taxes and creating incentives to learn English. The bill never reached the Senate floor, and by the time McCain ran for president in 2008, he had backed away from his moderate earlier position, saying the first priority was to "secure the border." Since then he has only upped his rhetoric, authorizing campaign ads that target illegal immigrants who commit crimes and promising to build the "danged fence." Under ferocious pressure from Hayworth, he also came out in support of Arizona's controversial law that lets police arrest people who aren't carrying identification. It's a far cry from the "old McCain" who warned his party against demonizing illegal immigrants and alienating Hispanic voters.

3. "Don't ask, don't tell": Four years ago, McCain pledged to support a repeal of the military policy barring gays and lesbians from serving openly. "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," he told an audience of university students in Iowa. This year both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen have urged a repeal, with Mullen testifying before Congress that it is "the right thing to do." But McCain has remained unmoved, pending a further study into the issue.

Other examples of McCain flip-flops? He was against the Bush tax cuts before he was for them. But perhaps the weirdest of all is his claim to NEWSWEEK that "I never considered myself a maverick." This despite bestowing the moniker on himself many times during the 2008 campaign (or standing by, grinning, as his running mate, Sarah Palin, did). His campaign even put out this ad titled "The Original Maverick." So, what to conclude? Politics in America is polarized as never before. But McCain is first and foremost a survivor, and the man who gamely battled George W. Bush for his party's nomination in 2000 has gamely adapted. If he beats Hayworth next week, virtually ensuring a Senate sinecure until 2016, it will be interesting to see if McCain will do so again—or even if he wants to.