WASHINGTON — Liberals who have sung the praises of John McCain in the past confront a fascinating test of consistency, integrity and political commitment now that McCain is the virtually certain Republican nominee.

It could be an amusing moment. I should know, since I’m one of them.

Over the years, I’ve said a lot of nice things about McCain. In 1996 I suggested that Bob Dole pick him as his running mate. (Dole didn’t listen.) I praised McCain’s work on campaign finance reform, admired him for opposing President Bush’s tax cuts and was upset when he was being cut down by the Bush machine in 2000. I wrote a friendly review of one of McCain’s books, and even once asked, in print, that God bless him (for his refusal to bash immigrants).

Even my punditry has been sympathetic to McCain. In July of 1999 I said he’d emerge as the main challenger to George W. Bush, and in early November of last year I pointed to the beginnings of a 2008 McCain comeback.

Please forgive those self-referential paragraphs. I offer them to underscore that the problem I’m writing about is not somebody else’s. It’s mine.

Liberals can’t ignore their past praise of McCain and trash him now just because he’s the Republican nominee. After all, isn’t he the guy many liberals once wanted the GOP to nominate?

Yet neither does it make sense for liberals to ignore all the issues on which they disagree with McCain — for starters, his commitment to continuing the occupation of Iraq indefinitely, his flip-flopping on those tax cuts, his opposition to government-sponsored universal health coverage — even if aspects of his persona are appealing.

McCain made the liberals’ work easier by renouncing parts of his past so he could win this year’s Republican nomination. His reversal on taxes is breathtaking, and he doesn’t even own up to why he opposed Bush’s tax cuts in the first place.

His new position is that he’s for making the Bush tax cuts permanent simply because he never wants to vote for a tax increase. But if these tax cuts were a bad idea, why should they be continued?

And McCain now claims he opposed the Bush tax cuts because they were not accompanied by spending cuts. But that wasn’t his thrust at the time. “I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief,” he said in 2001. Too bad that John McCain isn’t running this year.

His efforts to pander to the religious right that he so bravely opposed in 2000 (he called Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance”) aren’t very attractive, either.

And it’s mystifying that while Barack Obama has been willing — in the phrase he made fashionable — to “reject and denounce” Louis Farrakhan because of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, McCain hasn’t gone nearly as far in dealing with pastor John Hagee. The evangelical leader, who called the Roman Catholic Church “the great whore,” has endorsed McCain. McCain distanced himself from Hagee’s anti-Catholicism — there are, after all, a lot of Catholic swing voters — but why is McCain so reluctant to use much stronger language about Hagee himself?

All this points to what is maddening about McCain. At times, he has acted with courage and honor. At other times, he behaves like a crafty politician. There is an independent side to McCain that has made him an authentic maverick. But on so many issues he is nothing more (or less) than a thoroughly conventional conservative politician.

Perhaps the issue that matters most, especially to liberals, is his turnabout on President Bush himself. Face it: Many liberals found McCain most attractive when he was being smeared and assaulted by Bush’s lieutenants in the 2000 campaign. The more the Republican establishment attacked him, the more anti-establishment McCain became. Liberals loved that.

But McCain got to where he is now by making his peace with Bush. Notably on Iraq but also on economics, he seems to be running for George W.’s third term. That’s not what the country needs.

So what’s the path of integrity for one-time McCain fans on the center and left? It would be to base our judgments on the extent to which the rebellious McCain we admired has given way to the McCain who is as conservative as he always said he was — even if many liberals (and, for different reasons, many conservatives) didn’t want to believe him.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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