McCain Derangement Syndrome

John McCain Scoop Jackson Democrat Dean Barnett argues that John McCain is “a Scoop Jackson Democrat living under the Republican ‘big tent'” who “has an uncanny ability to drive virtually all conservatives nuts.”

Let’s take the second part first, since that’s the thrust of the article:

Sometimes, like when he voted against the Bush tax cuts, it almost seemed like McCain was being contrarian just for the sake of being contrarian. It seems as if McCain has a need to remind the Republican party, including the voters whose support he now seeks, that he will remain his own man and never allow party loyalty or political expediency to co-opt him.

There’s an obvious nobility in this path. But sometimes, McCain’s disdain for conservative positions takes on an almost childish air.


Concerns regarding McCain go beyond his much ballyhooed “maverick streak” that so often places him in opposition to conservatives. It’s that McCain typically adopts these positions in such a fulsome manner. A recurring theme in McCain’s contrarian battles has been his manifest lack of respect for those who disagree with him.

This is largely right, I think. Indeed, though McCain ultimately came to be my favorite among the current Republican field, his strident preening on stances seemed designed to irritate the base made him my least favorite Republican for years. Ultimately, as the subhead of a recent Bill Kristol editorial quips, “You fight an election with the politicians you have.”

On some issues, like the Gang of 14 compromise and the need for more troops in Iraq, he was right while the base (myself included) were wrong. On others, like ANWR and campaign finance, he remains off-base in more ways than one. He’s also right, I think, on immigration and climate change, although his current stances on those issues are unhelpful to him in the primaries.

Regardless, however, it’s rather silly to call him a “Scoop Jackson Democrat.” While that’s a perfectly fine tradition — our own Dave Schuler proudly claims it — McCain is a conservative by most measures. He’s a military and fiscal hawk, anti-abortion, right-of-center on most social issues, and wants Scalia-type judges on the bench. His 82.3 lifetime ACU rating puts him to the right of Senators like Alabama’s Richard Shelby (74.2) whose credentials few challenge. Joe Lieberman, who Barnett says was the last of the Scoop Jackson Democrats in that party, rates 16.8, by the way.

Still, Barnett has a point here:

There’s also the ancillary issue of what will happen to conservatives in general and the Republican party in particular if McCain should become president. Fractious and bitter infighting has become something of a hallmark of the GOP in recent years, and it’s questionable whether a Republican president who seems to take delight in antagonizing the conservative base could serve as a uniting figure.

It’s true that McCain’s style makes him poorly suited to be “a uniter, not a divider.” It’s questionable, though, whether anyone can do this. Certainly, any of the plausible nominees. Mike Huckabee would alienate everyone but the religious conservatives — who, in turn, could probably get behind anyone but Mitt Romney. And Rudy Giuliani is arguably more pugnacious and divisive than McCain — and certainly more liberal on issues that matter to Republicans. The bitter infighting, then, is likely to continue.

Ultimately, as Kristol observes, McCain is the “most favorably viewed of all the candidates right now, both among Republicans and the electorate as a whole.” Perhaps that says more about the field than McCain. It is, however, what it is.

My guess, though, is that the conservative opposition to McCain goes beyond style. Gerard Baker of the London Times dubs it “McCain Derangement Syndrome” and argues that its origins are deeper than disagreement over campaign finance or immigration.

I sense that the syndrome says something about what has gone so badly wrong with the conservative movement in the past ten years. It has become so intolerant and exclusive that once orthodox views are now regarded as heresy; while views once merely narrow and eccentric are now prerequisites for membership.

One of Mr McCain’s biggest sins is to have opposed tax cuts in the early years of the Bush presidency because there was no effort to cut spending to match them. This runs counter to the new orthodoxy on the Right that believes tax cutting is a kind of alchemy – cut taxes anywhere at any time and you will always and everywhere produce increases in government revenues. There is not the slightest evidence for this, but no matter. You must believe.

Mr McCain is unacceptable also because he has insufficiently orthodox views on human rights. Last week a writer in the National Review said that Mr McCain was not a conservative because he opposes torture of terrorist suspects. Quite how the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower came to erect a “Torturers Only” sign at its gate will be a matter for historians.

We shall see. McCain has a very decent chance to win today’s South Carolina primary. If he does, he’s the odds-on frontrunner for the nomination.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Remember the radicalization I was complaining about a bit ago? The tone of the opposition to McCain i.e. not just its content but its tone was one of the things I was thinking of.

    While I understand principled opposition to him on the basis of, for example, McCain-Feingold or his position on immigration, the vitriol that’s heaped on his head is something else again.

  2. Steve Plunk says:

    The whole uniter versus divider argument is wearing thin. Who says it’s better to be a uniter? Perhaps government will work more in the interest of the citizens if it stays partisan and divided.

    If we all can accept the fact there are too many laws then why would we want a congress that cooperates and passes even more? Why would we want congressmen who trade away principles for votes or pork? Indeed what catastrophe would befall us if congress skipped a session and we worked off the most recent budgets and spending for the period?

    Keep the uniters, I want someone who will represent my interests and oppose the outrageous pork barrel spending and over regulation we are subjected to. Give me a divider who will draw the political lines clearly.

  3. just me says:

    In the end, McCain was who I voted for in the NH primary. I debated, thought about it, debated some more, and was still wishy washy when I marked my ballot.

    But I think the one thing McCain has is just enough of everything to please most of the GOP, there isn’t anyone who is going to be happy this year, and I think that is the one thing that will hurt the GOP.

    I think in the presidential race, the Democrats seem to have the most momentum, and the last thing I want to see is a candidate for the GOP that keeps a good portion of the voters home, because there are also congressional races to consider.

    My state has an excellent GOP senator up for reelection this year, he may not be perfect in every way, but he is pretty consistent, and I like him.

    McCain isn’t great-I would have sworn a year ago, I would never in a million years vote for him in a primary-but I did, he may not pull out the win, but I think most people in the GOP can be brought into his corner when it comes time to vote, and a major block of the party won’t decide to stay at home in a tantrum.

  4. jwb says:

    It’s funny when you argue about which Republican should become president, because your party could nominate Moses himself and still get clobbered in the general this year.

  5. SavageView says:

    If McCain is such the ideal candidate in 2008, why was he not so in 2000? What’s changed other than his age?

  6. just me says:

    It’s funny when you argue about which Republican should become president, because your party could nominate Moses himself and still get clobbered in the general this year.

    In a vote of who is most likely to get clobbered this year, I think it is safe to predict the GOP candidate, but that doesn’t mean republicans shouldn’t consider and think about which candidate they most want to see in the position.

    That whole chickens and egg counting thing, and it is still Jan, November is 11 long months away, and anything can happen.

  7. Derrick says:

    If McCain is such the ideal candidate in 2008, why was he not so in 2000? What’s changed other than his age?

    Just as many have tried to do with Mittens this year, “the Establishment” had long decided on GWB as their champion in 2000. Independents in New Hampshire didn’t quite get the message, but most of the GOP decided to fall in line. Its funny when comparing McCain and Bush, McCain even back then looked like a more capable President than Bush in every imaginable way but the money men and his Daddy’s friends had already decided who was next in line. The establishment is a bit more fractured this time around and the natural front runners Giuliani and Mitt have deeper flaws with the base than GW ever had.

  8. anjin-san says:

    It’s hardly a shocker that “conservatives” hate McCain. He’s a for-real war hero, not someone who struts around and talks (or types) tough while out of harm’s way.

    He did not think tax cuts for billionaires was such a hot idea.

    He thinks America should hold the moral high ground and get out of the torture business.

    No surprise at all…

  9. DL says:

    If Mc Cain is “right” on (illegal)immigration then it stands that it is okay to illegally flood the country with Muslims who will bring Islamic Sharia law (see the UK now)with them. To say otherwise is to admit bias.

    The real issue is a president’s willingness to defy popular demands while violating his oath of office.

    McCain’s hostility (and revenge) toward those who disagree or oppose him exposes a man of dangerous and unsuitable behavior for such an office.