John McCain, meet John McCain.
It is one of the most astonishing transformations of a political figure in recent history -- GOP presidential candidate John McCain is abandoning old positions and adopting new ones with both an impressive tactical nimbleness and a blithe disregard for his long legislative and political record. Imagine Ronald Reagan suddenly adopting a soak-the-rich stance or Bill Clinton becoming a protectionist, and you've got some idea of the campaign conversion of John McCain.
The old McCain was a champion of financial deregulation, playing a key role in the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era law that strictly limited what banks, investment banks and mortgage lenders could and could not do.
The Arizona senator enthusiastically supported the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which further dismantled the old regulatory structure. And he backed the 2000 move by his former colleague -- and key economic adviser -- former Sen. Phil Gram to prohibit federal agencies from regulating the financial derivative markets, which went completely haywire and are now in total crisis, dragging the world's financial system into chaos.
But that was then. This is now. And the new McCain is now promising voters a re-regulatory frenzy. He's not very specific -- though he does pledge to limit somehow the compensation of corporate CEOs, an idea he's backed in the past -- but he sure is vehement.
McCain addressed voters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, today, telling them, "The regulators were asleep, my friends. They were not working for you. The primary regulator of Wall Street is the Security and Exchange Commission, we call the SEC, kept in place trading rules that let speculators and hedge funds turn our markets into a casino."
McCain also pledged today to fire the SEC commissioner, even though under federal law, the president does not have the authority to fire him because he is the head of an independent agency.
The McCain campaign told ABC News today that while the president does not have the formal power to fire the chairman of the SEC, the president could pressure SEC chair Chris Cox for his resignation.
Economic, Environmental Evolution
The old McCain was a traditional fiscal conservative, seeking to rein in federal spending and cautious on the budgetary impact of big tax cuts. The old McCain denounced President Bush's tax cuts in 2001, saying they were skewed to benefit the wealthiest Americans.
That was then. This is now. The new John McCain now wants to extend the Bush tax cuts, and add to them. He ignores the predictions of the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office that the extension of the Bush tax cuts (and adjusting the alternative minimum tax, as McCain supports) would have a direct cost of $3.7 trillion over the next 10 years (fiscal year 2009 through 2018), according to Joint Committee on Taxation and Congressional Budget Office estimates.
The math is merciless; these cuts would add billions to the already ballooning federal deficit. And while McCain still rails against spending, his campaign promises -- on health care, military spending and other areas -- don't add up (neither do Barack Obama's, of course).
According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan organization, McCain's economic pledges would cost between $524 billion and $563 billion by 2013, and Obama's economic proposals would result in an estimated deficit exceeding $300 billion by the same year.
The old John McCain supported a moratorium on offshore drilling. The new John McCain -- with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at his side -- is all about drill, baby, drill.
John McCain on the Campaign TrailAnd it's more than substance that's changed in McCain. It's the tone and style of his campaign.
Remember the "Straight Talk Express"? That was the old John McCain's rolling, roiling, nonstop, no-holds-barred news conference, held constantly aboard his campaign bus or plane. McCain was proud of his willingness to take every question reporters could throw at him; he reveled in the give-and-take. He pledged that's the way he'd always campaign.
And in these sessions, McCain often startled reporters by his willingness to criticize himself, to take responsibility for what he frankly admitted were mistakes.
For instance, I asked him aboard his bus last year how he felt about the scandal in the treatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital. "Ashamed," he said. "I should have known … and voters might fairly think a little less of me for it."
But that was then. Now, McCain diligently avoids the reporters who cover him. Gone are the rolling news conferences; gone is that startling frankness. McCain has not held a news conference since Aug. 13. Traveling with him, many reporters simply never see him from any distance closer than 100 feet or more, and the press is penned in from the podium during his public events. Earlier this year, when McCain outfitted his campaign plane for the general election, there were special facilities put in for his news conferences. They have been used once.
And McCain is a lot more scripted these days, too. During the last couple of days, he's taken questions from voters in "town hall meetings," but those were his first unscripted encounters with voters since Aug. 20. More and more now, McCain is on script, reading from a teleprompter.
The New Script
And that script is part of the new McCain, too. It's tougher -- even nastier -- than the kind of campaigns the old McCain ran. Back in 2000, McCain actually apologized for betraying his own principles when he did not denounce the flying of the Confederate battle flag over South Carolina's state capitol building. "I chose to compromise my principles," he said. "I broke my promise to always tell the truth."
During that campaign, McCain also, famously, blasted the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Rev. Pat Robertson and others as "agents of intolerance" who engaged in "tactics of division and slander." He would not stoke the culture war.
Now, McCain has embraced the religious conservatives he once rejected, and plays the culture war for all its worth. His pick of Palin for vice president sealed his alliance with the same wing of his party he once scorned. And several of his ads -- especially one in which he accused Obama of advocating a sex education measure that would have kindergartners "learning about sex before learning to read," an ad described by the nonpartisan Factcheck.org as "simply false" and excoriated by many media organizations -- and other attacks show McCain is willing to embrace tactics he once rejected.
The McCain campaign declined to comment in response to this story. According to ABC News consultant Matthew Dowd, "There's some serious problems that he could have. One is that John McCain's brand was premised on authenticity and he's had so many changes not only in style but in substance that I think voters might begin to ask the question, 'Who really is John McCain? And is he who we believe he is?'"
Now, in many ways, the new John McCain is doing what every presidential candidate does: shifting the substance, tone and style of his campaign to gain advantages. But the depth and sweep of McCain's moves may present voters with a challenge. Which McCain is the real McCain?