Monday, December 8, 2003 Posted: 1:37 PM EST (1837 GMT)
Mark Shields, nationally known columnist and commentator, is the moderator of CNN's The Capital Gang
WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- A half a century ago, during Joe McCarthy's red-baiting days, Norman Thomas, the American Socialist leader, after he finished a speech, was publicly cross-examined by an unfriendly University of Virginia student questioner.
"You advocate a federal civil rights law that would totally nullify states' rights, and so, too, do the Communists. You support socialized medicine and a ban on nuclear testing; the Communists back both," the student said. "How do you explain yourself?"
Norman Thomas, with no trace of rancor, turned to his accuser and explained, "I walk where I choose to walk."
Watching Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, decide and lead on the day's decisive issues reminds this reporter of that Norman Thomas anecdote. John McCain very much walks --make that, marches -- where he chooses.
After the ugly, personal attacks resorted to by backers of George W. Bush to beat the Arizonan in the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary, McCain, like so many other unsuccessful White House challengers, might have been expected to withdraw and even to sulk in his tent. He has done nothing of the sort.
Since his presidential run, Republican John McCain has become an even more vigorous, if bipartisan, legislator and political leader.
Never given to understatement, McCain branded the Bush administration-backed energy plan that he, as one of six Republican insurgents, helped derail in the Senate as "no policy alternatives, just one pork-barrel project larded onto another" and the "leave no lobbyist behind bill."
When word leaked that the bill provided tax-free bonds to build a mall in Bossier City, Louisiana, that would house a chain restaurant known for its chesty waitresses in tight T-shirts, McCain incorporated that fact in a "Hooters and polluters" taunt.
McCain is that rare politician who seems to enjoy telling his audience -- and powerful individuals and interests -- what they really do not expect, and often do not want, to hear. At countless town meetings he held during the presidential campaign, he was asked when the Congress would pass a patients bill of rights, which McCain strongly supported.
His answer: We won't get a patients bill of rights as long as my Republican Party is getting its instructions from the insurance industry and as long as the Democrats are beholden to the trial attorneys.
McCain, alone, refused to pander to Iowans and pledge that the federal treasury would underwrite the production of ethanol, the corn-based gasoline additive.
Here are just a few McCain initiatives. He and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Senate to increase the CAFE standards to require that by 2015 all cars and light trucks would get 36 miles per gallon.
Earlier, McCain and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman
had lost a 55-to-43 Senate vote against their bill to reduce global warming, the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases
from industrial smokestacks.
He has been more successful in his efforts, along with Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh, to expand national service. Joined by Illinois Republican Peter Fitzgerald, McCain took on two Washington powerhouses -- the Pentagon and Boeing Corp. -- and their sweetheart plan to stick taxpayers with a $16 billion tab for leasing 100 of the company's 767s as Air Force tankers.
More than any legislative agenda, John McCain has stood for a coherent, responsible and unselfish approach to the nation's current crisis. He has argued -- and voted -- that the United States cannot afford to wage the war against terrorism and to also hand out big new tax cuts or huge new entitlements.
He criticizes both the Republican Congress and the Republican president for increases in discretionary federal spending at a rate twice as high as Bush insisted he would tolerate.
The Maverick says, "The president cannot say ... that 'I'm going to tell Congress to enforce some spending discipline' and then not veto bills."
On Iraq, he has been a strong voice, arguing for more troops: "If our troop-deployment schedules are more important than our staying power (this from a man who knows painfully the limits of U.S. staying power), we embolden our enemies and make it harder for our friends to take risks on our behalf."
In our rights-happy era, when conservatives' goal is the deregulating and privatizing of the economy and the liberals' goal is the privatizing and deregulating of the culture, John McCain -- echoing Teddy Roosevelt -- reminds us that we have duties to each other and to our nation, and challenges to serve and to sacrifice for a cause "larger than our own self-interest."