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Newsmaker: John McCain

February 2, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And now back to Presidential politics and to Senator McCain, who joins us now from Columbia, South Carolina. Senator, welcome and congratulations.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Thank you very much. We were very exhilarated by the win, and it’s been a great ride.

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel as good now as you did last night when it happened?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Yes. Let me give you an example of kind of an unexpected thing that happened. We’ve now gotten $500,000 in contributions over the Internet today, which is more than we’ve ever had. By the way, that’s

JIM LEHRER: Just from all over the country?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: All over the country, $500,000, and most of that’s matched, so we may have the first million dollar day we’ve had in the history of this campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Wow. You said last night that this was the beginning of a national crusade. A crusade for what?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: A crusade to take the government out of the hands of the special interests and give it back to the people of this country and allow them again to be connected with their government. Young people don’t vote; young people are cynical; they’ve become alienated because the special interests have taken over and their hopes and dreams and aspirations are no longer represented. That’s what we find out from talking to them. For example, the lowest voter turnout in history of the eighteen to twenty-six-year-olds was in the 1998 election.

JIM LEHRER: But the man you defeated last night was George W. Bush. And you’ve said you want to send a message to Washington. He’s been the governor of Texas. Is he – how does he fit into your crusade?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, he fits – he defends the status quo. He will not support campaign finance reform. He says that it’s bad for our party. I’ve always believed that’s what’s good for our country is good for our party. He is obviously – or his people are now setting up organizations where tens of millions of dollars of soft money are going to be funneled into the campaign. And obviously the establishment is all behind him because they want the status quo. I’m going to break the iron triangle of lobbyists, money, and legislation, and he’s defending it.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say to those who suggest, though, hey, wait a minute, Senator, you’ve been chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which is kind of center of the establishment, at least one part of the establishment in Washington in terms of legislation for interests, and all of that, and Governor Bush has been in Texas while this has been going on. Why are you different? You’ve been here but you’re not part of it. He hasn’t been here, and he is.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Because I have fought tooth and nail against the special interests, whether it be against the telecommunications so-called Reform Act of 1998 – 1996 – or whether it be against the giveaway of $70 billion of free spectrum to the television – to the broadcasters. I’ve fought against pork barrel spending. I’ve fought for the line item veto. I was responsible for the legislation on a gift ban and the lobbying ban, and I’ve been a reformer all of my time in Washington, and we’ve had some successes, and we’ve also had some failures. But there’s no doubt what I’ve fought for, and that’s against the special interests.

JIM LEHRER: There was a suggestion today from some of Governor Bush’s supporters that maybe you’re not really a true blue Republican, that some of the things you support like campaign finance reform and your opposition to tax cuts are more like Gore and Bradley and Clinton and Democrats than Republican.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I’m much more like Ronald Reagan, actually, than the present hierarchy of our party. I’m for tax cuts, but I’m for working Americans. Governor Bush wants to give 38 percent of his tax cuts to the wealthiest 1 percent. I want to give it to working families. But I want to give it also to pay into Social Security, and make it solve, Medicare, and start paying down the debt. And, by the way, the majority of Republicans supporting the polls support my proposal, over Governor Bush’s. He has not one penny for Social Security, not one penny for Medicare, not one penny for paying down the debt. It’s conservative to pay for our obligations when they have some money. And I think it’s clear who the conservative is, particularly on the issue of taxes. But also, look, is it not conservative or Republican to try to take the government out of the hands of special interests, which prevent the American people from being represented? I think that’s the tradition of Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, to tell you the truth. Theodore Roosevelt got a ban on corporate contributions to American political campaigns in 1907. He’s my role model.

JIM LEHRER: Well, then, but you don’t deny you’re a different kind of Republican, do you, than the “leadership” of the party right now?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I think, you know, the party has lost its way to a large degree, because we’ve been captured by the huge amounts of soft money. Ronald Reagan is – I’m right in tune with him and with Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight David Eisenhower. It’s a terrible thing, what all this money has done to our party, and we’ve got to break this grip or this Iron Triangle that I’ve talked about before.

JIM LEHRER: But wasn’t Ronald Reagan supported by the leadership of the Republican Party when he ran?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Oh, no. In 1976, there was, I think, one or two Senators, one of them being Laxalt. In 1980, the party candidate was John Connolly. He ran from the outside.

JIM LEHRER: But you don’t mind being considered a maverick, somebody that’s a little bit different than the traditional Republican?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: No. And what I’d really like to be known for and respected for is my independence, but my commitment to principle and my ability to inspire young Americans to commit themselves to causes greater than your self interest. And the fact is I’m the only candidate that’s fully prepared to be President of the United States, particularly as far as Commander in Chief is concerned.

JIM LEHRER: Fully prepared? You’re the only candidate to be fully prepared to be President of the United States?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: That’s right. The others are prepared; I am fully prepared.

JIM LEHRER: And what does fully mean?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: That means in every way I’m ready to take over the job; I don’t need on-the-job training.

JIM LEHRER: There was a story today that one of the new tactics, strategies, whichever way you want to use it, to go after you in South Carolina, in particular, is to paint you as a liberal. Now you mentioned – you mentioned that a moment ago. Is that going to work? Is there something out there that we don’t know that makes you a liberal?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I don’t know. If you inspect my 17-year voting record, it’s a proud conservative Republican who acts on principles and one who obviously has a very strong commitment to the leadership role the United States has to play. I’ve never voted for a pay raise – excuse me – never voted for a pay raise – but more importantly, I’ve never voted for a tax increase, whether it was proposed by a Republican or Democrat administration. I’m proud of my voting record, but look, these things happen in campaigns so that, you know, you call people liberals and others. I’m not going to do that with Governor Bush. He’s a good man, and we’re going to campaign on the differences we have, rather than trying to label somebody as something which clearly they’re not.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, yesterday was – marked the 107th month – straight month of economic expansion in the United States. If you’re elected, President, what would you do to make sure it keeps going on?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think I would focus a lot of attention on education and training so that we can provide a trained and skilled work force to meet the needs of this dramatically growing technology. I think that’s probably one of our first efforts – keep the regulation of the government as much as possible out of people’s lives, have a permanent ban on Internet taxes so that we don’t harm this technology, and also obviously, keep the policies that have been working. And that — Alan Greenspan has done I think a very good job in that direction. And finally – free trade – free trade is important. We’re in a global economy; we need to export our goods and services. We have the most productive work in the world in the United States of America. And any nation that will lower its barriers to our goods and products, I’ll do the same for them in the United States, and that’s a very important pillar, I believe, in the future prosperity of this country.

JIM LEHRER: President Clinton said yesterday that he thought he deserved some of the credit for this expansion or this continuing boom. Do you agree with that?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Yes, and – just as I would give him blame if it wasn’t. I would argue that the men and women who made this thing happen that are the incredible genius of America – reduction in regulations, deregulation in the 80’s, and a lot of other things – but I’ll give him some credit. And the question is, is how we keep it going, and that’s what I think I’m fully prepared to address.

JIM LEHRER: But you believe that the President has the power to keep it going, right?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Oh, I think that the President has a great deal to do with the power to keep it going. I don’t say that the President is a dictator. You have to deal with Congress; you have to deal with various forces. For example, the WTO debacle out in Seattle, which was largely the President’s — or at least to some degree – the President’s responsibility, has hurt our efforts to further free trade throughout the world. But there are obviously certain things which are not in the President’s control, but largely, they are.

JIM LEHRER: Back to New Hampshire for a moment. The pundits, a lot of the pundits, not all of the pundits, but many of the pundits said that at the heart of your victory was actually the character issue and your resume. Do you flinch at that? Do you revel in that? What’s your reaction to that?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think that voters vote for someone not based on what they’ve done but how they believe they can lead the country in the future. They think – they give you credit for what you’ve done, but they’ll only vote for you as to how they think you’ll lead. So I think part of that but I think specific positions – very straight, unambiguous positions on issues – and by the way the reason there was such a great gap between what pollsters were telling is that there were thousands of young New Hampshire, young people that went and registered to vote yesterday in order to vote for me. And that is what expanded the numbers to such an incredible degree. I’ve got to tell you – I never felt we would win by 19 points. I just didn’t think that was possible. And I’m exhilarated by it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think you’re going to win the whole thing?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Oh, I think we’ve got a great shot at it. I think we’re still the underdog. We were outspent in New Hampshire five and six to one and we still prevailed. We’re being outspent here, but I think we can win the battle of ideas if not the bucks. We’re still the underdog, still got a long way to go, still fighting an insurgency campaign, and I’m telling you, I’m loving every minute of it.

JIM LEHRER: You did over a hundred town meetings in New Hampshire. How are you going to do it in all these other states, beginning with South Carolina, how are you going to have to change the way you campaign in order to win this?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, we’ve done a whole lot of them down here already. We will get a megaphone and amplification and message out of this. I’ll have town hall meetings that are covered by local television and radio; we’re doing one with one of the local – one of the national talk shows here in a week or two. We’ll do the same technique so we’ll get the magnification of it. Look, I started New Hampshire with town hall meetings where 20 people came. I did one in Peterborough in July and gave away free ice cream, 40 people came. We did our last town hall meeting in Peterborough, the place was packed with well over a thousand people. So it’s a technique, if I may sound so immodest, that a lot of other candidates are going to have to employ because that’s the real essence of democracy, and that’s interaction with the voters.

JIM LEHRER: And in your case at least it worked too, did it not?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Oh, yeah, but it was also marvelous. I mean, you hear from people, you learn, you listen. People, you can see them connect again after a period of cynicism and even alienation. So many people came up to me and said I haven’t voted in 20 years and I’m going to go out and vote for you. I mean, whether I win or lose, what we’ve been able to do here is something that I will always cherish the memory, even getting up in Laconia when it’s 35 degrees below zero.

JIM LEHRER: I got you. I got you. Well, Senator, again, congratulations, and thank you very much.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Thanks for having me on.