John McCain

The New Republic

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POLITICS MARCH 6, 2000

John McCain

This magazine has never before endorsed a candidate in a Republican primary. We are breaking precedent because, for the first time in recent memory, a serious Republican presidential candidate is seeking to remake his party into something other than the political arm of the privileged few. There are many issues on which we think John McCain is wrong, and even more on which he has been so vague that we cannot fully know. But his battle for the character of his party is so important that all Americans concerned about the integrity and decency of our political system should make his cause their own.


For most of his career, McCain was a fairly conventional right-wing senator- -notable for his personal heroism but neither a distinguished thinker nor a distinguished legislator. He accepted, without meaningful dissent, first the tenets of Reaganism and then those of Gingrichism. And he seemed neither inclined nor equipped to challenge the political party and the political movement whose direction he had loyally followed since he first entered politics.


But over the past year McCain has undergone one of the most astonishing and most unusual transformations in modern American political history. And, as the pace of the campaign has increased, so has the pace of the transformation. How it began, and where it is going, we doubt anyone truly knows, perhaps not even the senator himself. But, even in its embryonic form, it is already the most important internal challenge to Republican economic orthodoxy in a generation. McCain's is not the first presidential crusade of the post-cold- war era--Pat Buchanan's and even Ross Perot's candidacies were also crusades. But it is the first crusade in which this nation can take pride.


If nothing else, McCain has proven that, in a presidential campaign, honesty need not mean political suicide. He invites reporters to question him for hours on end, and he answers spontaneously, without checking with advisers or referring to talking points. McCain's rivals charge--and reporters sheepishly concur--that the senator's charm and access have bought off the media, or at least biased it unconsciously. Perhaps so, but reducing the "Straight Talk Express" phenomenon to a crass exchange of access for puffery misses the point. Recent decades have seen an ever drearier procession of scripted candidates who view the media as nothing more than an instrument through which to transmit their chosen sound bites. In part, this process has been encouraged by reporters themselves, who, by mindlessly trolling for gaffes, reward robotic candidates and punish imaginative ones. McCain, through his radical openness, has changed this dynamic. His accessibility allows the media, and through it the voters, to glean a deeper insight into his person, thus raising the level of political discourse. Certainly, this advances the press's narrow interest in good copy, but the broader interest is the public's right to know.


Even more important is what McCain has actually said. And what he's said represents the beginnings of an alternative to the plutocratic conservatism that has defined the Republican Party for more than two decades. McCain's break with the right began with campaign finance reform. And this issue has remained at the heart of his platform. But his framing of it has changed in ways that reveal a great deal about his broader intellectual metamorphosis. At first he portrayed campaign finance reform as a matter of personal honor and, in goo-goo fashion, failed to connect his procedural reform with any substantive policies. In recent months, however, he has placed it in the context of broader reforms of the tax code, the federal budget, and managed care. And in so doing he is fashioning a reform conservatism that he accurately contrasts with the moneyed conservatism that has dominated his party for so long.


Central to that reform conservatism is McCain's rejection of large-scale tax-cutting, the predominant Republican fiscal policy for two decades. Here his ideological contrast with George W. Bush is most dramatic. Bush proposes a tax cut much larger than the projected on-budget surplus, which means that it would either necessitate large spending cuts or bring back deficits. Despite his refrain of "compassion," Bush's fiscal program would once again paralyze government. Most revealing is the logic that Bush, echoing other Republicans, employs on his tax plan's behalf. The surplus, he insists, "is not the government's money; it is the people's money." This is not an argument on utilitarian, pie-expanding grounds but on the basis of individual entitlement. Devoting the surplus toward some collective good--defense, say, or shoring up Social Security--is illegitimate, since the money belongs to " the people," whose interests are unrelated to those of "the government."


McCain, by contrast, talks about the budget surplus as an opportunity to ease the burden on future generations by reducing the federal debt. This is not just a different argument from the one Republicans usually employ, it is a different kind of argument, rooted in the interests of society as a whole. In point of fact, McCain's philosophy leads him to propose a role for government that is fairly stingy by the standards of the Democratic Party but still far closer to Bill Clinton than to Bush. McCain is predisposed against government intervention, but not unalterably so. Asked recently about a prescription drug benefit, he said, "If it requires a government program, then I'll support a government program to do that."


McCain exacerbates his heresy by attacking Bush's plan on distributional grounds--he frequently notes that Bush's tax cut would bestow 38 percent of its benefits upon the wealthiest one percent of all taxpayers. In other words, he is not arguing against tax cuts merely on the basis of old-fashioned fiscal conservatism, a doctrine that was supplanted by Reaganism but never completely disappeared from the Republican Party. He is viewing them through the framework of economic class--an analytical perspective utterly antithetical to modern conservatism. McCain may not yet have many ideas on how to narrow the gap between rich and poor, but, by attacking policies that would compound it, he places himself in direct opposition to the most cherished notions of the conservative movement.


Not all of McCain's convictions directly collide with Republican dogma. But his longest and most vociferously held conservative positions happen to be ones that liberals ought to agree with. In Congress, McCain has compiled one of the strongest records of resistance to pork-barrel spending. He even extends that opposition to defense pork, a rare and audacious position among Republicans, who shamelessly lard the military budget with weapons systems the Pentagon doesn't want. McCain makes it clear that he sees military spending as a way to strengthen defense, not as an excuse to reward a GOP interest group.


On foreign policy, again, McCain's contrast with his opponent is instructive. Bush says he would limit military intervention to "our national strategic interest." He told a crowd in Michigan, "I'll also tell our allies: 'If there's a conflict in your area, you get to put the troops on the ground, you get to keep the warring parties apart, you get to be the peacekeepers.'" McCain specifically decries this sort of isolationist jingoism. "We are driven by Wilsonian principles," he said recently. "There are times when our principles and our values are so offended that we have to do what we can to resolve a terrible situation." On both foreign policy and defense reform, McCain's war heroism gives him what Clinton never had: the political capital necessary to make unpopular decisions.


What about the bad stuff? It's there--but not in the places liberals have been looking. Much has been made of McCain's conservative voting record, but, as conservatives well understand, the senator has evolved to the point where his record explains little of his current thinking. Sure, he still touts the conservative line on social issues, but he speaks with so much ambiguity and so little passion that it's hard to believe he'd do anything about them.


This is reassuring, as far as it goes. Yet it undermines what is supposed to be McCain's strongest rationale: his honesty. McCain climaxes his stump speech with a promise that "I will always tell you the truth, no matter what." But McCain's public comments on abortion, for example, verge on incoherent. Last year he stated that he would not repeal Roe v. Wade "in the short term, or even the long term." He subsequently backpedaled and has repeatedly brought up his pro-life voting record without explaining why he still holds to it. If McCain is not masking his position, he is, at the very least, failing to share the full complexity of it. Worse, McCain has flip-flopped on the Confederate flag, eventually settling upon agnosticism, the reason for which he has likewise failed to elucidate.

But these flaws pale before the importance of McCain's crusade to reshape the GOP. The party he confronts has all the venality of the spoilsmen whom Theodore Roosevelt confronted a century ago. Is McCain T.R.? Of course not-- but, then again, T.R. was not T.R., either; he was a complicated figure, as much a conservative as a progressive, whose accomplishments did not fully match his trust-busting swagger. The founding editors of this magazine fell hard for Roosevelt--"I loved him," recalled Walter Lippmann--and they were eventually disappointed. And McCain might disappoint as well. But we are willing to hope. For, if his crusade succeeds, America will have two parties advocating some reasonable approximation of the public good rather than one.

By The Editors

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