How Conservative is John McCain?

With all the attention being paid to the death-struggle between Clinton and Obama on the left, not much attention is being paid to John McCain, but he is still the presumptive Republican nominee, and eventually voters on the right will have to stop gloating about the Democrat meltdown and start thinking seriously about how they feel about McCain. Some far right groups are already raising concerns and throwing around accusations that McCain is a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and doesn’t embrace true conservative values.

They may be overlooking the fact that the GOP is more than just a hardcore conservative party and that it has always had a strong libertarian constituency and a good large chunk of moderates, but are they even right? Is McCain really as left-leaning as the far right would have us believe? The information compiled about McCain’s record on sites like Project Vote Smart and On the Issues seems to suggest that while McCain isn’t an entirely textbook conservative he certainly holds very conservative positions on most core issues, adding up to a position which is certainly to the right of the mainstream of the GOP, even if it is not on the extreme right.

Let’s consider McCain’s record on the top 5 conservative issues: Guns, Taxes, Abortion, Defense and Family Values.

Guns: McCain is from Arizona which is about the most conservative state in the nation on gun issues. He wouldn’t be in office at all if he wasn’t a big gun supporter. And in fact, McCain has opposed every major gun control proposal he’s been presented with. He supported assault weapon ownership, he supports a national law to allow concealed carry, he opposed allowing suits against gun makers, he opposed magazine size and ammunition restrictions, he voted agains the Brady Bill and he voted against background checks at gun shows twice. It is literally impossible to have a more conservative position on gun control than McCain does based on his actual record. Nonetheless, many have accused McCain of being a ‘gun grabber’ based primarily on his low ratings from Gun Owners of America. What they usually aren’t aware of is that the GOA rating which McCain did poorly on includes a lot of very strange issues which have nothing to do with guns and represent GOA’s broader reactionary agenda. As a result many Republicans who are very pro-gun scored even lower than McCain.

Taxes: McCain opposes virtually every possible tax increase and is on the record advocating decreasing or eliminating most taxes. Unlike most of the other candidates, McCain actually took Project Vote Smart’s Political Courage Test in 2004 and it goes into considerable detail on his position on taxes. It shows him advocating a greatly decreasing taxes in every area, except for income taxes on the highest incomes and the cigarette tax, both of which he would maintain at current levels. He opposes the marriage penalty, would decrease inheritance taxes, increase most deduictions, lower capital gains taxes, and even lower corporate taxes. The only places where he comes up at all short is that he doesn’t go all the way to eliminating the current tax system or repealing estate and capital gains taxes. He consistently receives one of the highest ratings from groups like Americans for Tax Reform and the National Taxpayers Union. In fact, he had a higher rating from the NTU than Ron Paul did and was the 6th highest rated of all Senators and Representatives. Nonetheless there are those who fault McCain’s record on cutting taxes because he didn’t vote for the original Bush tax cuts. Yet at the time he made very clear that he thought those cuts should be accompanied by spending cuts, and it’s hard to imagine a more conservative or fiscally responsible position than that.

Abortion: According to the Political Courage Test, McCain has a pretty conservative and very clear position on Abortion. He opposes any kind of public funding, opposes abortion in all cases except for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger. He also voted against allowing partial birth abortion. The only way he could be more conservative on abortion would be to support a total ban on all forms of abortion, and only a handful of elected Republicans take that position. Abortion groups tend to be absolutist, but throughout his career McCain has had solid 0 ratings from NARAL and Planned Parenthood, and has had fairly good ratings, mostly in ther top 20% from groups like the National Right to Life Committee. On this issue his position is pretty unambiguous, and only the most extreme conservatives think there are even any questions to raise.

Defense: When it comes to the War on Terror, opposing radical Islam and supporting the military, McCain is about the most conservative person you can find in elective office. He’s the prototype for a pro-defense hawk. His record on this is unassailable. He’s supported every military action, every aggressive foreign policy and every military appropriation he’s ever seen. On this one he’s actually too conservative for some conservatives who have come around to the other side and become less than sanguine about military adventurism. But certainly on the view of defense which has been traditional among Republicans, McCain is as conservative as they come. If McCain comes up short on this issue it’s only in the very limited context of his opposition to torture and his belief that suspected terrorists have a right to some sort of trial. Last time I checked, support of torture wasn’t a mainstream conservative position and most conservatives are strong on human rights, so I don’t really see these positions as inconsistent with conservatism, even if they are out of step with the Bush administration.

Family Values: This is a bit of a catch-all, but it’s clearly important to religious conservatives if not to those who are conservative primarily on issues like defense and taxes. In this area McCain certainly seems to toe the conservative line. He’s a church-going Christian. He supports the War on Drugs and the death penalty. He supports school choice and vouchers. Perhaps most importantly he supports a federal ban on gay marriage. And his abortion position, mentioned earlier, fits right in too. Some conservative groups give him good ratings, like Traditional Values Coalition. Yet other conservative groups aren’t pleased with McCain, which may be because his conservative positions are traditional, but not extreme. Gay marriage is a good example, because while he opposes gay marriage he does support legal and equal civil unions, a position he shares with President Bush, but which irritates those who think that sodomy should still be illegal. On the whole

Other Issues: On some lesser but still quite important issues, McCain has notably conservative positions. His views on welfare are extremely conservative, for example. He wants to link all forms of welfare to work and training programs and funnel as much of it as possible through private institutions, including church groups. That’s a very conservative position. More importantly to me, he also supports privatization of Social Security, a position which convinced me to support Bush, and which he found himself unable to follow through on. Maybe McCain could make privatization a reality. He has also come out against some elements of the Patriot Act and believes in more restrictions and oversight on wiretaps and other forms of surveillance of citizens and that seems like a very positive conservative position.

Where McCain does come up short for some conservatives is on the issue of immigration, and the related issues of free trade and corporate capitalism. While conservatives have traditionally been pro-business and in favor of trade and keeping the cost of labor down, a lot of conservatives have strayed from that traditional position and have become increasingly nativist, protectionist and isolationist, all positions which used to be the exclusive domain of the left. On this issue I would contend that McCain remains true to conservative values, and a lot of self-described conservatives have lost their way. In my book they are the real RINOs.

While McCain could possibly be more conservative, he’s more conservative than many Republicans, and the truth is that if he were much more conservative than he is he’d have little chance of winning a national election and certainly wouldn’t draw many of the essential democrat and independent votes needed for a win. So to answer the question in the title, McCain is pretty damned conservative and you couldn’t reasonably expect more. Conservatives who oppose him ought to take a moment and consider who they could support who is more conservative and could actually get elected. They might also want to consider the alternative — their choice of two extremist socialists who view any form of conservatism as evil.


About Dave 536 Articles
Dave Nalle has worked as a magazine editor, a freelance writer, a capitol hill staffer, a game designer and taught college history for many years. He now designs fonts for a living and lives with his family in a small town just outside Austin where he is ex-president of the local Lions Club. He is on the board of the Republican Liberty Caucus and Politics Editor of Blogcritics Magazine. You can find his writings about fonts, art and graphic design at The Scriptorium. He also runs a conspiracy debunking site at


  1. What a twisted perversion of the facts regarding McCain. This fact is aplified by the clear lack of bibliographical support for the authors claims. McCain is not conservative at all. Religious based hatred and calls for perpetual war and violence at the expense of bankrupting the federal government are not conservative values. Neither is suppressing the first ammendment of the bill of rights. They are just the opposite.

    Face it Dave. You’re a socialist and an anti-constitutionalist. In other words you’re a traitor.

    But don’t worry. Just leave a note and pull the trigger and we loyal Americans will forgive you.

  2. Romeo, there are several links in the article to documentation of all the facts included about McCain’s positions and voting record. The fact that you’ve been listening to reactionary propaganda does not actually make me wrong.

    That you think I’m a socialist or an anti-constitutionalist shows how little you know about either of those topics.


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