Politics & Policy

A Conservative Case against McCain

A former Senate colleague cautions the Right.

Rick Santorum doesn’t know who he’s voting for in the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, but he knows who he’s not voting for. The former Pennsylvania senator will not pull the lever for his former colleague, John McCain.

Since losing his seat to Democrat Bob Casey in the devastating-for-Republicans 2006 elections, Rick Santorum has focused much of his energy on the war on terror. As a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Santorum is building a project there focused on researching and warning Americans about “The Gathering Storm” and the nature of our enemy. The focus of his work over the last year makes it all the more significant that Santorum has taken to opposing McCain — whose attraction to conservative hawks is his stalwart defense of the surge in Iraq and his personal biography: his military service in Vietnam.

But Santorum’s criticisms cut to the heart of conservative concerns about McCain: that he’s not a conservative, that he’s been damaging to conservative causes while in the Senate, and that he would be no friend to conservatives — never mind being one himself — in the White House.

In an interview with Mark Levin on Levin’s radio show Thursday night, Santorum went so far as to call McCain “very, very dangerous for Republicans” on domestic policy. Santorum said: “I just have to tell you, as a leader, as someone who had to put these coalitions together, it was always hard and we very rarely on domestic policy had any help from the Senator from Arizona.”

Santorum told Levin: “The bottom line is that I served 12 years with him, 6 years in the United States Senate as leader, one of the leaders of the Senate — the number-3 leader — who had the responsibility of trying to put together the conservative agenda, and almost at every turn on domestic policy, John McCain was not only against us, but leading the charge on the other side.”

Santorum went first for the issue that most galvanized talk-radio audiences in 2007: immigration, calling it “just the latest example” of McCain’s leadership in opposition to conservatives. Santorum told Hugh Hewitt the day before, “John McCain was the guy who was working with Ted Kennedy to drive it down our throats, and lectured us repeatedly about how xenophobic we were, lectured us — us being the Republican conference — about how wrong we were on this, how we were on the wrong side of history.”

And there was, of course, McCain-Feingold, “an affront to personal freedoms and liberty”; on Levin’s show, Santorum called the campaign-finance-reform legislation a “misguided attempt to placate the New York Times and to help his stature within that community.”

Santorum noted: “We would have had a much bigger tax cut if it was not for John McCain.” He added: “On economic policy, he has come down not only against reductions in taxes, but he has come down on the side of government intervention into a whole variety of different industries — when it seems to be a popular thing to be on that side — and I think that makes us a lot less competitive in a world that is becoming more competitive.”

With the voters of Michigan specifically in mind, Santorum called McCain “absolutely lethal” to the auto industry. “On the environment [McCain] has sided with the radicals in the Congress.” Santorum reminded Levin’s listeners that John McCain was against drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which would have provided an important step toward energy independence.

Responding to McCain positioning himself “against Big Pharma” in a debate last week, Santorum, recalling McCain’s position on drug re-importation when they were both in the Senate, shot back: “Well, ‘Big Pharma’ happens to cure millions of people in this world. ‘Big Pharma’ happens to create a great quality of life for a lot of people and demagoguing like John Edwards against ‘Big Pharma’ doesn’t make me feel very good.”

On judges and McCain’s involvement in the Gang of 14, Santorum said: “That’s another situation where we felt it was important to establish a precedent where these nominations deserved an up or down vote on the floor of the United States Senate and they couldn’t use the rules that were not meant for executive nominations to apply to them, to block those votes; and we were ready to go, and John McCain was not ready to go.” He added that “this is not a guy who would give me a lot of confidence that he would appoint the judges who are necessary on the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, who would be strict constructionist judges.”

Although McCain has a largely pro-life voting record, Santorum — who led on pro-life and marriage issues in the Senate — cautioned against misunderstanding McCain’s public stance: “Not only was he wrong on embryonic-stem-cell research, but on a whole host of conservative issues, where he may have voted with us.” Santorum took radio listeners into the back-room workings of the Senate, emphasizing how the first step toward legislative success is finding time on the floor to discuss and vote on the issues: “That discussion is held in private, where you’re jostling and jockeying to get your legislation into the queue so that you can have your time on the floor to get something done. And I can tell you, when social-conservative issues were ever raised — whether it was marriage or abortion or a whole host of other issues — there were always the moderates who said ‘no, no, no, we can’t: they’re divisive, divisive, divisive.’ And more often than not, John McCain was . . . with them,” agreeing that these were divisive issues that the Senate should not bring to a vote.

“That’s wrong,” Santorum added, “and that gives me an insight into what he would really be like [on these issues] if he were president of the United States.”

On the issue to which Santorum has devoted much of his post-Senate life thus far — the war — while calling McCain “solid” on Iraq, Santorum noted to Levin that McCain “was the one who was out there blocking our ability to adequately question . . . detainees. . . . He did not come down on the side of what I think is appropriate and proper for the kind of war we are fighting today.” Santorum told National Review Online on Sunday: “He was bad on Gitmo and detainees generally, interrogation, borders, [and] FISA-related issues. He helped to drive us to the huge bureaucracy of the Transportation Security Administration.”

In the Levin interview, Santorum warned that with a President McCain, “I’m concerned we’d have a president whose first reaction would be to go to the other side to solve a problem instead of trying to find like-minded Republicans to come up with solutions. There is nothing worse than having a Democratic Congress and a Republican president who acts like a Democrat in matters that are very important to conservatives.”

Remembering a frustration from his time in the Senate — and a vote in 2003 on ANWR drilling, specifically, where although three Democrats voted to take this step toward energy independence, McCain was part of a “maverick” group of six Republicans who voted against it — Santorum told Levin: “we had some Democrats, but we couldn’t get John McCain.” In Santorum’s estimation — as a former Republican leader in the Senate who had to whip up support from the Republican caucus for votes — McCain isn’t a reliable ally for conservatives, never mind a conservative leader. McCain voted against his party with only one other Republican on the 2001 tax cuts, with two others against the 2003 tax cuts. He was one of two Republicans to vote against permanent repeal of the “death tax.” McCain was one of six Republicans to vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment. But the roll calls don’t tell the full story, Santorum argues. He tells NRO: “just as importantly we didn’t have cloture votes on better policy because we knew we would lose.”

For a movement that has spent a year pining for Ronald Reagan, John McCain is a very odd choice to settle on early. If conservatism is, as Mitt Romney said during a New Hampshire debate last Sunday night, a matter of temperament, John McCain isn’t a conservative.

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