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Published: Friday, 2/22/2008

2008 version of McCain isn't the straight talker of 8 years ago

AT this juncture in the crazy, chaotic slog to win the White House in 2008, the show is all about Obama and Hillary. All the time. We can't hear enough about the rock-star appeal of one Democrat and the sure, solutions-orientated message of the other. Back and forth. Attack and counterattack.

Meanwhile, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, John McCain is just there. Oh sure, the rabidly conservative wing of the party is on a tear about the Arizona senator as GOP front-runner. But other than the inflamed right, the McCain candidacy is just a placeholder for November and not a very exciting one at that. To think I almost voted for the Republican eight years ago.

Back then, he had it all over the other presidential wannabes, as far as I was concerned. That John McCain greatly appealed to political switch-hitters like me because he was so different, so straightforward, so unconstrained by party protocol, and so right on the money with issues that mattered. And his "Straight Talk Express" took him right down the middle of the country.

Back then, his willingness to break with the religious right was admirable. He nailed prominent evangelicals as "agents of intolerance." Despite conservative backlash, he became a champion of campaign-finance reform, making it a central issue of his 2000 presidential bid. He was widely perceived as a moderate with a refreshing independent streak who was unafraid of compromise.

He was also a Vietnam War hero with a keen sense of duty and honor. Yep, in 2000, Senator McCain was unique among his mostly uninspiring rivals. Or so we thought. But when he sidled up to the eventual Republican presidential nominee, even after Team Bush had stooped to an outrageous smear campaign against him to win, we were perplexed.

Suddenly the straight talker was forcefully endorsing George W. Bush during a prime-time convention speech, chumming with the nominee on the stage, and selling his soul to the powers that be. It was the beginning of his metamorphosis from a mighty maverick to a politician who will say and do anything to get elected. By the time the Arizona Republican was ready to run for president again, he was a changed man. He had changed from chastising the "agents of intolerance" to wooing them.

He changed from emphasizing deficit reduction over tax cuts and voting against President Bush's tax cuts to supporting cuts as a good thing that should be made permanent. He changed from opposing the repeal of Roe vs. Wade to advocating that the landmark abortion ruling be overturned. And most recently, he changed from being a passionate opponent of torture as an interrogation tool to a proponent of what amounts to a double standard for CIA interrogators.

What an amazing and disturbing conversion for the former POW who co-sponsored the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which banned any military use of waterboarding or other extreme tactics to extract information from suspected terrorists. On the same day that he bluntly called waterboarding "torture and illegal" and challenged the Bush Administration's defense of the maneuver that makes prisoners think they're drowning, he turned around and sided with the administration.

He voted against Democratic-sponsored legislation, promoted by anti-torture advocates, that sought to ban waterboarding and other coercive tactics by the CIA and limit the agency to the interrogation methods outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual. The measure passed anyway and President Bush says he'll veto it. But a McCain vote for it might have made that eventuality more complicated.

The Bush Administration claims it has embraced a clear stand against torture. But earlier this month the White House declared that simulated drowning as an interrogation ploy was legal and acceptable "under certain circumstances." So, despite Senator McCain's acute sensitivity to the issue of detention and interrogation of detainees, he gave his tacit approval to the President's interpretation of torture as subjective, depending on the situation.

The Navy pilot shot down over Hanoi, whose six years of captivity and torture in Vietnam made him a national celebrity, sold out to make nice with the administration and, perhaps, some of its conservative allies. In return, he got the blessing and baggage of the Bush dynasty. But with friends like 41 and 43, who needs enemies? What Republican wants to be aligned with what the Bush brand has wrought in needless war, destroyed credibility, fiscal folly, domestic incompetence, and abiding arrogance?

Eight years ago, I almost voted for a Republican presidential hopeful because he stood for something and wasn't timid about butting heads with his party over principle. But that was back then, when John McCain was more about promise than pandering. Now he's just there.



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