Putting Country Last

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THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 26, 2008

Putting Country Last

I don't know John McCain as well as David Brooks does. In fact, I don't know him personally at all. But I covered his 2000 and 2008 primary campaigns, and I spent considerable time interviewing him, including several long interviews I did for a profile in 2006. As I wrote in that profile, I liked and respected McCain, and in 2000, I urged the magazine to endorse jointly McCain and Al Gore during the primaries. He was, I thought, basically a moderate Republican (I never took his or Chuck Hagel's positions on social issues seriously). But above all, he was, as he claimed during this campaign, a politician who would put "country first."

By this year, of course, I was far less enthusiastic about a McCain presidency. McCain boasts of his prescience on the surge, but the surge took place four years after a needless war that McCain helped start--a war that devastated a country, destabilized a region, undermined America's standing in the world (and I am not merely speaking of our moral standing), and killed and maimed thousands and thousands of people. It is the kind of an action for which your average politician or general (I am thinking of the Argentinean generals who masterminded the Falklands war) would be banished from public life. It should have been the end of McCain and Bush and all those people.

I never doubted, however, that McCain's motives in pushing America into war were honorable. Nor do I question his motives in pushing Georgia into NATO or in rattling the sabers against Iran. I question his judgment and wouldn't want him as president. But I do question his motives in inserting himself into the attempt by the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, and the Congressional leadership (excluding the usual suspects from the Republican House delegation) to fashion a plan for preventing a Wall Street crash. He has shown a willingness to put the success of his campaign ahead of the country's welfare. And it's not over a relatively minor matter--like offshore drilling or creationism in schools.

I know there are economists, some of whom I respect, that think this financial crisis will blow over, that it's a crisis in the financial superstructure that won't ultimately affect the country's industrial base. I have never understood the post-1980 stock market very well, but I know something about economic history, and I know that at a certain point, a financial crisis can get out of hand and lead to a credit crunch that will depress the industrial base and set off a vicious cycle of unemployment. I also know a little bit about international economic history--enough at least to appreciate what would happen if nations began to abandon the dollar the way they abandoned the British pound eighty years ago. As Paul Krugman--who has been writing about the mortgage mess for years--has argued, it is not worth taking the chance that this crisis will blow over.

That's a long way of saying that it is simply unpatriotic--it's an insult to flag, country, and all the things that McCain claims to hold dear--for McCain to hold this financial crisis hostage to his political ambitions. McCain doesn't know a thing about finance and is no position to help work out an agreement. If we do suffer a serious bank run, or a run on the dollar, it can be laid directly at his feet. As I said to friends last night, if McCain had been president at this point, I would have wanted to impeach him.  

That brings me back to David Brooks' column. David thinks that beneath the surface of McCain the craven campaigner, the man who nominated an ill-prepared  Sarah Palin as his possible successor and has lent his energies to blocking a financial bailout, there still sits a "real McCain" who could govern fairly and effectively as president. I doubt it. I really doubt it. Whether because of age or overreaching ambition, McCain has become the kind of man he earlier railed against. He has become the Bush of 2000 against whom he campaigned or the Senate and House Republicans whom he despised. His defeat is now imperative.

--John B. Judis

Related: Has the McCain Campaign Broken Sarah Palin? by Christopher Orr              Is There an Upside to McCain's Failed Gambit? by Jason Zengerle               Method to McCain's Madness? by Jonathan Chait 

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posted in: the plank, human interest, person career, david brooks, john mccain

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