In the washingtonpost.com’s “Post Politics Hour” web chat last Friday, a questioner noted that President Bush is “fantastically unpopular” and that Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) “policies are, on the major issues, pretty much the same as Bush’s.” The questioner then wondered: “So what the heck is going on that McCain could be even within 20 points of either” Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) or Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in the polls? Post reporter Jonathan Weisman said the reason is that McCain has been “branded” an “independent maverick.” As evidence justifying such a brand, Weisman cited the senator’s efforts in 1998 to regulate tobacco despite strong misgivings from his GOP colleagues:
In case you want to stop playing Milbank for a while: Who are these people who loathe everything the Republicans have done in the past seven years, and yet would be willing to cast their votes for McCain anyway?
Jonathan Weisman: I am dead serious. McCain has cultivated an image that has branded him as an independent maverick now for more than a decade. He fought the GOP over tobacco in 1998.
Weisman is correct; McCain championed legislation to regulate the tobacco industry in 1998 that his Republican friends didn’t like. McCain even said he would “never” give up his efforts to regulate the industry. But Weisman’s defense of McCain’s self-ascribed “maverick” label falls short of the facts. The reality is that McCain’s “never” pledge didn’t last very long. Not only has he since voted against a bill that would have raised tobacco taxes by 61 cents in order to pay for an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, but McCain is now backing away from a tobacco regulation bill that he co-sponsored.
As further evidence that McCain is an “independent maverick,” Weisman said he has “clashed” with Bush “repeatedly” -– but offered no details –- and claimed that McCain “wants to end government-sanctioned torture.” But McCain has actually voted to enable “government-sanctioned torture,” a position that is in lock-step with President Bush.
Weisman concluded that “Americans see McCain the way they want to” and it is “going to be hard to break” McCain’s “maverick” brand. But maybe Americans see McCain as a “straight-talking maverick” because, despite all evidence to the contrary, that’s how the media constantly portray him.