25 August 2008

The Presidential Candidates: John McCain

The Republican candidate sometimes seems as uncomfortable with the American Bipolarchy as most of his fellow candidates. His reported desire to recruit Senator Lieberman as his running mate, as well as his reputed willingness to at least discuss the idea of joining Senator Kerry's ticket in 2004, hint at some frustration with the polarization through which the Bipolarchy paradoxically strengthens itself. Likewise, his signature piece of legislation, the McCain-Feingold bill, reflects some fundamental distrust of the prevailing mode of electioneering. For all this, however, McCain has never seriously considered exploiting his fame and popularity following the 2000 Republican primaries to stake out an independent party as his own territory.

McCain's father and grandfather were admirals. He graduated from Annapolis and had his adventures in Vietnam, attended the Naval War College after his release from prison, and entered politics in the 1980s. He was elected to Congress in 1982 and jumped to the Senate after two terms. He became the front-runner for the 2000 presidential nomination after winning the New Hampshire primary, but faltered in the southern states. Reporters characterized this as George W. Bush turning the tide against McCain through shady tactics, but it's more likely that McCain simply had limited appeal in the reactionary South. At the time, he rather than Bush was the neocon candidate, embodying what was then called "national greatness conservatism" opposed to Bush's avowed aversion to "nation building" and his promise of "modesty" in foreign affairs. Many "paleo" conservatives have never embraced that agenda, and many still distrust McCain.

He was a very early front-runner for the 2008 nomination, but seemed to shrivel in the polls during 2007. He "surged" in early 2008, exploiting the split within the religious right between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee and the listless campaigning of Rudolph Giuliani and Fred Thompson. Our house expert on things Republican, Mr. Right, says that McCain only won the nomination because too many states hold open primaries. Had voting been limited to registered Republicans, he claims, Romney or even Thompson would more likely have won. In any event, McCain appears to have convinced himself that his stubborn support for the "surge" in Iraq was the key to his ascent, but it appears increasingly unlikely that he'll test this theory in the general election, as issues like energy policy, the rise of Russia, and economic conditions loom larger than the Iraqi question.

His website biography emphasizes McCain's enmity toward special interests and pork barrel spending, but devotes more space to his Vietnam adventures than to his legislative career. He boasts of his most recent re-election, having earned 77 % of the Arizona vote in 2004. McCain-Feingold goes unmentioned in this biography or on the interactive timeline at the website.

Do some digging at the site, under "On the Issues," and then under "Government Reform" and you find the familiar McCain viewpoint:

The American people have been alienated from the process of self-government by the overwhelming appearance of their elected leaders having sold-out to the big-moneyed special interests who help finance political campaigns.As John McCain has said, "Americans believe that political representation is measured on a sliding scale. The more you give the more effectively you can petition your government."

McCain concedes that "competitive elections in a free country require money. Since campaigns require spending funds to communicate with voters, they know we can never take money completely out of politics, nor should we." He adds, however, that "what most Americans worry about profoundly is corporations or individuals with huge checks seeking the undue influence on lawmakers that such largesse is intended to purchase." Here he still defies the conservative consensus that presumes that donors give money due to affinity with candidates' existing views, not in an attempt to influence them. McCain follows his idol Teddy Roosevelt in casting suspicion on corporate financing of political campaigns. His website promises that "As President, John McCain will see to it that the institutions of self-government are respected pillars of democracy, not commodities to be bought, bartered, or abused." In practice, as some critics have warned, McCain expects people to trust him based on his reputation and his self-image as a man above reproach.

The Arizonan's opinions on Iraq are already well known. Globally, "America confronts a range of serious security challenges: Protecting our homeland in an age of global terrorism and Islamist extremism; working with friends and partners overseas, from Africa to Southeast Asia, to help them combat terrorism and violent insurgencies in their own countries; defending against missile and nuclear attack; maintaining the credibility of our defense commitments to our allies; and waging difficult counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq." I'm surprised he hasn't updated this laundry list to include containing or deterring Russia, but he has a convention upcoming to make that point.

"He will ensure that the war against terrorists is fought intelligently, with patience and resolve, using all instruments of national power," the website says, "Moreover, he will lead this fight with the understanding that to impinge on the rights of our own citizens or restrict the freedoms for which our nation stands would be to give terrorists the victory they seek." That's nice talk, but people in the Bush administration would gladly and shamelessly echo it. It may be unfair to McCain, but Bush's practices require McCain to prove his own credentials with more than platitudes. He has spoken out against waterboarding at times, and is presumed to have special empathy on the question of torture, but how far can he depart from the established means if he's committed to the same ends?

Regarding the question of whether he considers a draft necessary to keep up our military obligations, McCain's website says nothing specific. It says that "For too long, we have asked too much of too few," but implies that the country could get more people to enlist by offering better incentives. Nevertheless, "John McCain believes we must enlarge the size of our armed forces to meet new challenges to our security," so we should not presume that restoring the draft is, as they say, off the table.

On the economy, McCain's site boasts a crawl of presumably prestigious economists who have endorsed the man or his plan. Whether any of them do so on the basis of an objective appraisal, or only because they are Republicans or conservatives themselves, one must guess for oneself. McCain makes it clear that he intends to govern on behalf of the employing minority as opposed to the employed majority: "Entrepreneurs are at the heart of American innovation, growth and prosperity. Entrepreneurs create the ultimate job security - a new, better opportunity if your current job goes away. Entrepreneurs should not be taxed into submission." Working people are warned that their jobs are at risk if their bosses are overtaxed. On the other hand, it's probably a good idea, as he proposes, to offer tax credits to business that actually invest in technological innovation. Unlike his Republican ancestors of 150 years ago, however, he doesn't believe that American innovation should be protected from foreign competition. He wants to lower trade barriers everywhere on the presumption that these harm American businesses disproportionately.

McCain also appreciates the need to retrain adult workers for new technologies and educate future workers for the next technologies. Converting unemployment insurance into a subsidized retraining program is a good idea, as is his commitment to "prepare the next generation of workers by making American education worthy of the promise we make to our children and ourselves. " He also talks about "the ability of all students to have access to any school of demonstrated excellence," but to the extent that that means subsidizing private schools through a voucher system, he would undermine the best instrument for preparing a generation of techie innovators.

On energy policy, McCain hopes to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs by building new nuclear power plants from components made exclusively in this country. He wants to use tax credits to develop wind, solar, and clean coal technologies, but also wants to pursue offshore drilling. Unlike many Republicans, he does suspect that price speculation is going on and wants a thorough investigation of the matter. He also believes that he can drive the price of oil down by convincing oil producers that we will wean ourselves off foreign oil within a set time, and by increasing the value of the dollar through his other economic policies.

Inevitably, because of the resources the Republican Party can throw into the project, there's much more material to examine at the McCain website, but I want to draw to a close before this looks like I'm giving more attention to the major party candidates. There are two important questions to raise about McCain: is he a maverick, and is he a warmonger? Unlike a committed Democrat, I'm not going to categorically deny that McCain has been or can be a maverick. Especially if he commits to a single term, he's very likely to govern as his own man, with maybe a minimal regard for his party's interests. This could be a good thing or very bad. It begs the question of McCain's true nature, not vis-a-vis the Republican party or the conservative movement, but as a person on his own terms. We're told that he's a gambler, and voters will have to gamble on whether McCain will govern above partisanship, as a partisan hack, as a conservative or neoconservative ideologue, or as an unpredictable egoist. As for warmongering, McCain's persistence on a stubborn neocon misreading of world conflicts, his fantastical insistence that every conflict is a struggle of Freedom vs Tyranny, puts the country in danger of overcommitment to entangling alliances worldwide, whether in Poland, Georgia or points beyond. His equally bullheaded but all too typically American insistence on seeing Middle East conflicts in moral terms puts us on a collision course with an Iran governed by similarly misguided people. In my mind, McCain seems very capable of stabbing conservatives in the back and governing domestically as a pragmatic moderate. But the stronger possibility that his ideological belligerence will get us into more wars makes the stakes too high to gamble that McCain is a safe man for the presidency.

Here's the website link again, with a note that McCain allows you to choose "Supporter," "Undecided" and "Unregistered" options in order to customize the pitch you'll receive. Below is our customary YouTube clip. There were lots to choose from, and I won't tell you I looked at even a lot of them. Most were the cheap shot ads that may come to define the 2008 campaign from both major parties, but here's McCain at a "town hall" two months ago discussing some of his energy policy ideas. I decided to show him discussing a relatively neutral topic in order to make him look neither deceptively benign nor selectively menacing. Anyone who wants to see more will find it easily enough.

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