As part of my continuing effort to persuade media colleagues to put quote marks around the word maverick when writing about John McCain, here's his latest pit stop on the flip-flop express.
Ten years ago, while burnishing the "maverick" image that has prompted so much swooning among Washington scribes, McCain styled himself as a courageous foe of the tobacco industry. He routinely condemned them and he vowed to take their money. He championed a Senate measure to slap a tax on Big Tobacco - to the tune of $1.10 per pack - and route the revenue to federal programs designed to curb underage smoking.
When Big Tobacco squawked, and vowed to spend tens of millions of dollars to stop him, McCain declared, "I'm honored by the attacks by people who have addicted our children and lied to Congress" - the latter, of course, referring to the tobacco CEOs who testified under oath about the safe, non-addictive properties of their products.
When he first announced his $1.10 tax plan, he said in a press release: "The health and well-being of America's children is a cause that transcends party affiliation."
When fellow Republicans asked McCain how he could dare push for a tax hike and still call himself a Republican, he replied on the Senate floor (June 17, 1998): "Maybe we ought to remember the obligations that we incur when we govern America. We might want to understand that our obligation first of all is to those who can't care for themselves in this society, and that includes our children. Isn't it out obligation - shouldn't it define the Republican party that we should do everything we can to handle this scourge, this disease that is rampant throughout young children in America? Doesn't that define the Republican party?"
And when fellow Republicans that day called him a tax-raiser, he replied: "This bill is not about taxes. It's about whether we're going to allow the death march of 418,000 Americans a year who die early from tobacco-related disease and do nothing."
Indeed, when McCain was asked earlier that spring on PBS whether he'd give in to his Republican critics, he replied, "Never."
Well, you guessed it. McCain has given up. Today he is against the concept of taxing Big Tobacco, after he was for it.
Right now, there's a Senate bill - nearing a vote - that would slap a 61-cent tax on every pack of butts, and earmark the money for a children's health program. But as McCain reportedly remarked at a recent policy conference, "Now help me out here: We are trying to get people not to smoke, and yet we are depending on tobacco to fund a program that's designed for children's health? I can't buy that."
Who would ever want to buy such a whacky concept? McCain did, of course, but that was in his previous incarnation. McCain 2.0 has recalibrated his convictions, bringing them more into line with Republican orthodoxy. By that standard, the idea of imposing a sin tax on a major industry - one, by the way, that gives most of its money to the Republican party - is ludicrious and, even worse, smacks of liberalism. As such, it was necessary for the "maverick" to stand down.
Ten years ago, while championing the tobacco tax, he told GOP colleagues that the vote was about "whether we're going to have the will to serve the public interest, or the special interest."
The new McCain has now given us his answer.
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