The candidate formerly known as John


Once again, the Straight-Talk Express has pulled out of the depot and is speeding down yet another Republican campaign trail. But that’s not John McCain in the driver’s seat this time.

As you can plainly see on the nonstop TV news, it’s Rudy Giuliani who is flooring the pedal of the Straight-Talk Express, speeding merrily along, telling it like it is, for better or maybe worse. Pro-surge in Iraq. Pro-choice in America. Pro-gay rights everywhere. Pro-family values everywhere, but, some would say, in his own families.

In many ways, Giuliani seems to be emerging as a New McCain. At least he seems to be enjoying his first fling at presidential politics. Strongly behind President Bush on Iraq, strongly at odds with the Republican hard-core base on all things social.

McCain is a strangely joyless presidential hopeful these days. He seems to be carefully tailoring his every word, as though hoping to make himself acceptable to Republicans who rejected him seven years ago. The Straight-Talk Express candidate in 2000 has chosen a very different campaign vehicle for 2008. Perhaps because he blames his famous straight talk for making him what he is today — not president.

The remaking of McCain has included a shaving of policies and a shredding of principles. The Arizona senator began by blowing kisses of support at Bush and stifling his opposition to some Bush policies.

Then he went further: He courted the religious right he once attacked. Then he went still further: He hired the firm that made those 2004 Swift Boat veterans ads — the ones he once called “dishonest and dishonorable” in their claim that John Kerry didn’t deserve his Vietnam War combat medals. And he promoted an ex-Bush strategist, Terry Nelson, whose group was behind those ugly 2006 Tennessee Senate campaign ads that used a racially suggestive appeal (blond woman, bare shoulders) to help defeat then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr., a black Democratic bachelor who had once gone to a Playboy magazine party.

In the process, McCain has not only jettisoned his Straight-Talk, but he has jettisoned the Old McCain. Somewhere along the way, he deep-sixed his political zest. On the TV news and Sunday talk-fests, where he once talked boldly, he now weaves and wavers. His cadence is much slower, voice much quieter. He has gone from combative to defensive. He comes into your parlor appearing not just unconvincing but unconvinced.

That was clear to all who watched ABC News’ “This Week” last Sunday. Host George Stephanopoulos first played a 2006 clip in which he’d asked McCain if U.S. lives should be sacrificed to halt fighting between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shia. “No,” McCain had said in 2006, “but the United States can continue to try to build the military and the police and law enforcement to a degree that they could keep them apart. I don’t think we could intervene in that kind of violence.”

Stephanopoulos, who has worked to become an excellent news interviewer/interrogator, then asked last Sunday if that isn’t exactly what Bush is now doing and McCain is now supporting. McCain answered with his new Waver-Talk. He began with old Bush-Cheney-Rummy lines about al Qaeda and somehow steered himself into Yugoslavia.

“We’re trying to stop a lot of things, including al Qaeda being returned, including foreign influences. But, obviously, there is an unacceptable level of sectarian violence. We went into Bosnia and stopped sectarian violence. We went into Kosovo, we stopped sectarian violence.”

Say what? Stephanopoulos wouldn’t let McCain go there: “How do you justify the switch?”

“Let me finish,” said the newly defensive McCain. “And so I believe that we can stabilize and then, as I said back a year ago, allow the Iraqi military to be built up to the point where they can take over. … I believe it has a good chance of succeeding, but I also know the consequences of failure.”

McCain again said that senators who oppose Bush’s sending of 20,000 more troops to Iraq are “intellectually dishonest.”

Exit McCain; enter his closest Senate pal, Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel, a key surge opponent.

Hagel looked and sounded like the Old McCain — straight talk, crisp cadence, comfortable confidence: “We can’t change the outcome of Iraq by putting American troops in the middle of a civil war.” He said the United States should pull its forces back to seal Iraq’s borders and train Iraqis to police their civil war.

Hagel spoke with the sort of un-hedged honesty rarely heard since McCain left the campaign trail. Unfortunately, that sort of candor won’t get him far in the Republican race. But that doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of Hagel in Campaign 2008.

An independent third-party presidential bandwagon may be just the right vehicle for Chuck Hagel’s uniquely customized 2008 Straight-Talk Express.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)