One element of George W. Bush’s rise to power that tends to be forgotten in retrospect is that Republicans were really looking in 2000 for someone who, though solidly conservative, didn’t have a conservative voting record. Under Newt Gingrich, after all, the congressional GOP tried to implement conservatism and the voters didn’t like it. But before John McCain was a maverick, he was an orthodox Republican Senator and he lived through the whole thing. If he becomes the GOP nominee, when the Democrats go through his voting record they’ll find all the greatest hits from the 1996 re-election campaign — stuff about $270 billion in Medicare cuts and tens of thousands of senior citizens forced into poverty.
That’s ancient history now, so in some ways the impact will be blunted. But still, any long-serving senator faces some real risks in having random elements of his voting record dragged back out during the campaign, and as best anyone can tell rabid opposition to government services actually is something McCain believes in. How will that play out in the end? It’s hard to say. But the essence of McCain’s strength in the polls right now is that for years he’s been attacked by the right as insufficiently loyal and sporadically praised by Democrats as a valued collaborator. If he wins, that changes, and we start hearing about a whole other side of McCain’s record.