I've written before (one, two) about McCain's pandering tendencies. Today, ThinkProgress brings us still more evidence of McCain's pandering --- this time reversing his position on Roe v. Wade. By now, we all know who he's trying to please.
You know, Rick Santorum took a lot of heat for being an extremist, and everyone I know was happy when he lost. But I kind of liked Santorum. Of course, I'm glad that he no longer has any actual power, but in truth Santorum was a far more principled, independent, and honest man than McCain. Santorum was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, and he spoke and voted exactly what he believed. As a consequence, when Pennsylvania voters discovered that they disagreed with him, they promptly voted him out.
McCain's a far more pernicious animal. His beliefs on many subjects are, in fact, roughly as extreme as Rick Santorum's. I've linked before to this roundup of McCain's positions on a wide spectrum of issues, and he falls well within the right-Republican cluster on everything but the environment. And McCains' environment score from that link is only in the ballpark of Lieberman and Kerry for that year because the latter two missed a lot of Senate votes for their Presidential campaigns; the 2005 rankings reveal a good 50-point spread between Kerry and McCain.
And that's just domestic policy. McCain's foreign policy positions are cartoonishly hawkish: his chief problems with Dick and Don's Excellent Adventure (to borrow Digby's phrase) are (a) it was insufficiently ambitious and (b) we should do this stuff more often.
But somehow even perfectly reasonable people, including political reporters who ought to know better, behave as if McCain were an independent and principled moderate. Why? I could dream up a web of complicated hypotheses, but at heart I'm a simple guy and sometimes simple answers cut to the heart of things. Let's turn to this CNN interview with Dana Milbank...
MILBANK: Well, there was some basis for that. But I think the pattern here is that the press does respond to the guy walking down the aisle and shaking hands with them.
The press responds to the staffers on the campaign just being nice to them. The whole lesson of McCain, reporters fell in love with McCain not because of anything he believed in but because he was nice to them and he gave them donuts. They're like a bunch of children.
SIMON: It was access more than donuts.
MILBANK: It's not a flattering portrayal of the president. I mean, one of the things I wrote about is comparing the quality of food served on the campaigns. Reporters like to be fed. And we are absolutely a large group of children. And it has a tremendous effect.
So when you talk about ideological bias, it's nothing. It's sort of a culinary bias.
KURTZ: Indictment on the food question.
SIMON: I remember the Jesse Jackson campaign where we didn't get fed at all.
MILBANK: Exactly. Look where he went.
Now, of course Simon and Milbank are partly joking in the last paragraph; Jackson lost for many reasons, of which failure to properly feed the press was only one. But the doughnuts are effective synecdoche: McCain gives reporters doughnuts --- and other little tokens to make them feel special --- and in exchange they're happy to sell out their responsibility to the American people. McCain knows that buying the Oval Office with doughnuts is a pretty good deal, so he's happy to buy the doughnuts.
In short, McCain's a much more calculating and manipulative character than Rick Santorum. He speaks in a way that obfuscates his genuine conservatism, and he manipulates the press into carrying his water. As a result, most Americans have no clue what McCain really believes, and (unlike Santorum) McCain remains a major national political figure. Given a choice between a McCain and a Santorum, I'd almost rather have a Santorum.