McCain Derangement Syndrome
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.