Wednesday, May 10, 2006
I've been meaning to write something for some time about McCain, and every time there's a news-based excuse I'm too busy to write anything. So I'll do it now.
McCain is the current front-runner for the GOP nomination for several reasons. First, he is not President Bush, and nobody thinks he is. Second, he seems to really want to be President. Third, he's still got a lot of credibility with certain kinds of swing voters, and even Democrats. Fourth, he's associated with clean government, and the GOP is currently suffering from (among other things) a serious K-street problem as well as some spectacular instances of out-and-out corruption. Fifth, McCain is serious about spending restraint, having opposed the Medicare drug bill, the highway bill, the farm bill and having made a career of opposing pork - all this in pointed contrast to both the President and Congress.
McCain also has big advantages over his three biggest potential primary opponents: Allen, Romney and Giuliani. Allen is way too much like Bush, and I don't think that's what the electorate will want after eight years. Romney and Giuliani pose at least as big a problem to the Christian Right as McCain does; both have more liberal records than McCain does (Rudy by a huge margin), plus Romney is a Mormon and Giuliani is a multiple-divorcee. If you look at the four of them, based on his record McCain is clearly the most conservative after Allen, and therefore the only option that is both plausibly conservative and plausibly electable. His biggest weakness relative to the field is that he's the only one who's never run anything; Allen was a Governor before going to the Senate, Romney is a Governor, and Giuliani ran a city so big it might as well count as a state. This is balanced, though, by the fact that McCain unquestionably has the best foreign policy credentials of the bunch, and we're in the middle of a war.
McCain, though, has some serious liabilities as well, some of which will matter mostly in the primaries but others that will matter in a general election. Two of these are personal, and five of them are policy-related. I'll address each in turn, and how I think McCain can address each of them.
His first personal liability is that he has evinced at times a certain contempt for his opponents. Contempt is not an attractive quality in a political leader, even when you agree with him that his opponents are wrong, if not contemptible. Contempt should be reserved for actual enemies, not for political opponents in a democratic system. And manifesting contempt for opponents within your own party whom you need to win a general election is worse than a crime: it's a mistake, and a stupid one. My impression is that McCain has done a lot to work on this particular problem, but that doesn't mean it won't recur at the most inopportune moment. Continuing to work on it is my advice. In particular, working on it with respect to everybody and not just specific previous objects of contempt is important. McCain has done a lot to mend fences with the Christian Right. Meanwhile he's showing immigration restrictionists today the same contempt he showed in 2000 for guys like Jerry Falwell.
The bigger personal problem McCain has is his devotion to lost causes, even to making himself one of those lost causes. Nothing succeeds like success, but McCain has made a career out of romantic failure. Nearly every policy cause McCain has championed has died in the legislature (campaign finance reform ironically excepted). All those spending bills I mentioned that McCain opposed? They all passed. And, most notably, his own 2000 Presidential campaign began to fall apart the moment it appeared to have a prayer of victory - namely, right after New Hampshire. I don't think Senator McCain had really ever considered that he might win, that he might become President, and he began to behave strangely during the whole period between the New Hampshire victory and the South Carolina loss. Once he lost South Carolina, he seemed happier, and he was at his happiest torpedoing (or so it seemed at the time) any future he had in the GOP, and doing as much damage as possible to the Bush juggernaut. What was this strange behavior about? Partly, no doubt, his feelings about Bush, and the fact that he let those feelings get in the way of rational decisionmaking does not speak well of him. But there's something else there, something deep inside that is part of what makes him attractive, but that if it comes to dominate will scare people away from him and cause him to lose - and that, if it comes to dominate when he is President, will be very dangerous. There is a Churchillian aspect to McCain. We would do well to remember what a weird fellow Churchill actually was, how unsuited he was to nearly any task of political life except the one that made him a national hero, leading Britain in her finest hour. I'm not sure how McCain can reassure on this score, but what I, at least, am looking for is a bit of a sign that he can play FDR - a coldly manipulative man if there ever was one - as well as Churchill.
The big risk for McCain is that his opponents will successfully attack him at one of his points of personal vulnerability in a way that successfully couples with an attack at one of his points of policy vulnerability. To that end, let me detail what I think are his five biggest areas of policy vulnerability, in ascending order of seriousness and intractability.
Guns. McCain has a history of being squishy on guns. In fact, he sponsored gun control legislation. This is totally unacceptable to the GOP base. Fortunately for McCain, this is an issue he can solve very easily, because guns are not a hot issue right now and Giuliani - his most dangerous opponent in the primaries - is even worse on the issue. I expect McCain to pander shamelessly to the NRA. In any event, in the general election, McCain vs. Clinton is an easy call for gun rights voters even if McCain doesn't pander to them at all.
Taxes. McCain voted against Bush's first big round of tax cuts, and his tax proposals in 2000 were neither serious in a policy sense nor appealing to people who vote on tax policy. McCain now champions extension of Bush's tax cuts, but his reasoning is not persuasive. What does he really believe on this issue? I think he believes that lower taxes are better than higher ones but balanced budgets are the top priority. That is to say: his tax stance is probably closer to Bob Dole's than Newt Gingrinch's. This is not enough to win over the Stephen Moores of the world. Fortunately, taxes are not the most salient issue in this campaign; fortunately as well, McCain has a relatively straightforward rhetorical out that is sufficiently in tune with what he believes and sufficiently appealing to both primary and general election voters. McCain should say that the next tax reform needs to bring back the Spirit of '86. We should lower the tax burden on businesses and families by closing loopholes and simplifying the code, lowering rates and broadening the base. I could list specific proposals I favor, but I won't do that here, both because that belongs in another post and because I don't think McCain needs to be specific. All he needs to say specifically is that he will not favor raising income tax rates or increasing the tax burden generally, and that his overall philosophy is: close loopholes, broaden the base, lower rates.
The Culture War. McCain is not a culture warrior, neither of the Pat Robertson type nor the Pat Buchanan type nor the Robert Bork type. As Bill Kristol said during the 2000 campaign, the faith-based institution that McCain believes in is America. Good. Good for three reasons: because the culture war as such is a negative for America, even if you believe one side is pretty much right and the other side pretty much wrong; good because I get the impression that for some culture warriors cultural cues have come to matter more than actual policy, which is flat-out stupid, and McCain would force them to grow up; and good because, if you are on the right, having someone in the White House who isn't actually of your faction but knows which side his bread is buttered on may be the best of both worlds policy-wise. McCain has been doing exactly what I expected him to do with respect to Christian conservative leaders: he's been pledging his fealty publicly and privately. He's even pandering now on Intelligent Design, which I personally think is a political mistake as well as atrocious policy.
I think McCain's message on these issues needs to be very simple and clear. Number one, I'm my own man. Don't expect me to give any interest group a veto on my decisions. Number two, look at my record. I've got a pro-life record a mile long. I am a strong supporter of conservative, originalist and restrained jurisprudence. I believe in hard work, traditional families, grattitude towards the military, and one nation under God. In all my years in politics, I haven't changed my views on any of these bedrock questions, and I won't change them when I am President. That message, coupled with real effort to work on that personal contempt problem, should be sufficient. If it isn't, I'm afraid in my opinion that would be an indication of lack of seriousness on the part of the Christian Right. But I fully expect it will be sufficient.
That handles the policy side and the leadership of the Christian Right. But cultural comfort does matter to voters, and McCain will need to figure out how to address it. I think what McCain needs is to have an Oprah moment. He needs to talk about his relationship with his kids. He needs to find entrees to talking about family values - maybe do a speech about military families, the strains on their lives, how military dads can be wonderful role models but also absent ones. The "values voters" are somewhat more female than male, and vastly more lower-middle and middle-class than upper-middle or higher class. Approaching these voters is at least as much about solving McCain's image problem with women as about anything else (men love McCain; women find him much less appealing). I don't think McCain should publicly or privately kowtow to Dobson or Robertson or anyone else. I also don't think he needs to call people "agents of evil." I think if he is respectful without pandering, then a bit of humanizing talk will do wonders breaking through to the actual voters in the bloc. If McCain can avoid showing contempt, and the Christian Right can avoid demanding outright fealty, this is a problem that can be solved.
(An aside on this topic re: David Souter, who always comes up in the context of anyone who is not heart and soul part of the Christian Right who wants their support. First, the lesson of Souter for people who vote of judges should be: don't vote for someone who will put Warren Rudman in charge of the selection of Supreme Court judges, and don't buy a pure stealth nominee. The lesson cannot be: don't vote for anyone who isn't himself either a member of Opus Dei or the 700 Club. Second, President George H. W. Bush nominated lots of conservatives to the Federal bench; Souter was the exception - an important exception, but an exception - to a rule that was quite friendly to judicial conservatives. Third, Anthony Kennedy is at least as problematic for judicial conservatives and opponents of abortion as David Souter, and Kennedy was selected in part because people believed he would vote the "right" way because of his Catholicism. It didn't work out that way, and that's a caution to anyone who would make their voting decisions primarily on the basis of gut cultural comfort. Finally, in the same vein, the current President Bush, who's about as culturally friendly to Christian conservatives as any President could be, nominated Harriet Miers.)
Iraq. Now we're getting to the really tricky stuff, the stuff that can't be finessed. Iraq is McCain's biggest strength and his biggest weakness. His biggest strength because, like it or not, we're at war, and McCain is someone people will trust in fighting a war. He's a warrior himself, but he's also been deeply involved in defense and foreign policy issues for decades, and has a cogent and detailed critique of the conduct of the Iraq War specifically. But there is another edge to that sword. McCain is vulnerable on Iraq in three ways.
First, McCain has a not-entirely-undeserved reputation as the guy who never saw a war he didn't like. During the Kossovo intervention, when much of the GOP was questioning why we were in combat at all, McCain was saying we needed to send ground troops. On Iraq, McCain was an early advocate of putting more troops into the conflict, and he has maintained that position. McCain seems to have a much clearer idea than President Bush that "bear any burden, pay any price" could turn out to be quite a burden and quite a price - but he still believes in that kind of rhetoric. McCain is the only prominent candidate in the GOP primary who not only cannot hedge his support for the Iraq War but, really, is almost certainly going to be arguing that we need to do more - in Iraq and elsewhere - to prosecute the war, with a very expansive conception of the war's aims. That just may not be what the country wants to hear. They certainly will want to hear that the next President will be tough and determined and committed to defending America. But they just may want tough and determined prosecution of more limited war aims than McCain will articulate.
Second, and this is a bit of a subtle point, McCain could be a bit trapped by his difficult relations with President Bush. As I said, McCain has been a strong critic of aspects of the prosecution of the war - on the issue of torture, on how many troops were and are needed, etc. But because he's percieved - still - as a disloyal Republican, he can't press these criticisms too hard for fear of being accused of attacking the President. Moreover, such criticisms amount to saying "I wouldn't have made such dumb mistakes myself" and that kind of assertion can easily be spun by opponents as know-it-all arrogance. I'm not saying this is fair, mind you, but I do think it's part of the reality that McCain faces in this campaign. This is a unique problem for McCain, I think, because I don't think President Bush has a similar relationship with any of the other candidates that would cause him to be especially sensitive to the tone of criticism. And no matter how low the President's poll numbers, he'll have some influence over how things go in the primaries and, in contrast to President Reagan's behavior in 1988, I predict President Bush will use it.
Third, and most subtly, McCain's romantic attachment to lost causes that I alluded to earlier could seriously hurt him in any debate about Iraq. Does McCain have a plan for winning the war? I doubt it - on the general principle that there is no such plan as well as on the evidence of how he's talked about the war. Is there a McCain doctrine that encompasses an undertaking as massive as he would have had the Iraq War be even knowing that there was no Iraqi nuclear program? I can't think what it might be. Has McCain articulated what America's force structure would have to be to sustain any such McCain doctrine, and has he budgeted for such a force structure? I'm pretty sure the answer is "no." If Iraq has become one of McCain's lost causes, or if the electorate starts to worry that it has become one, they will drop him like a stone, as they should.
My advice to McCain on Iraq is: change the topic. Seriously. Make it clear that this is a big world with a lot of foreign policy issues to deal with, and that he, Senator McCain, is a man who can master them. Talk about how we need to rebuild the navy. Talk about how we're going to deal with China, in military and diplomatic terms, in terms of deterrence and eliciting cooperation. Talk about Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, etc. in sober and non-apocalyptic terms, as difficult problems that require sustained attention and a strong and steady hand to address. If McCain gets into a second-guessing contest over Iraq, he loses, because if the country wants to second-guess Iraq it will pick someone with less of an Iraq record. If he is competing over who people trust more to handle American foreign policy and defense generally, I'm confident he can win.
Immigration. From tricky to impossible. Senator McCain is to the left of President Bush on immigration. And President Bush is well to the left of the GOP's center of gravity on immigration. And McCain is, without question, the furthest left candidate on immigration with a chance of winning the GOP nomination. Yes, that includes Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani certainly has a record of being "soft" on illegal immigration. But it's worth pointing out that he compiled that record as Mayor of New York City. He had no role in actually setting immigration policy. Moreover, Giuliani has a strong law-and-order reputation. He could certainly shift gears and, for example, favor building a wall and then amnestying illegals already here without meaningfully contradicting his record. That wouldn't be enough to make Mark Krikorian happy, but it would put him well to the right of McCain. Moreover, McCain's atmospherics around immigration are designed to infuriate restrictionists, where Giuliani's are more neutral - that is to say, McCain shows contempt for folks like the Minutemen while Giuliani simply gushes about how wonderful immigrants are and how we should have more of them. I'm trying to be honest here. I think McCain is clearly a superior choice to Giuliani for voters for whom restricting abortion is towards the top of the list. I think Giuliani is clearly a superior choice to McCain for voters for whom immigration restriction is towards the top of the list. And, of course, Allen and Romney don't have the baggage either of these guys have on this issue.
McCain is, I think, the only nominee who would be likely to provoke a third-party challenge focused on immigration restriction. The question is how well such a nominee would do and how much damage would be done to McCain in a general election from such a challenge. If the contest is at all close, a single-issue candidate focused on immigration could certainly flip key states to the Democrats by siphoning off must-have votes from the GOP. One would think that McCain would be certain to hold Arizona as a favorite son, but any other candidate with his set of positions would, in a contest with a serious, well-funded third-party immigration restrictionist candidacy, be fighting for his life in that state. McCain's hope would have to be that he could make such profound inroads into independent voter territory that he could afford to lose voters to a third party on immigration.
Of course, most third party gambits never even get off the ground, forget about actually catching fire once launched. If it's a two-way race with Hillary Clinton, the worry is that she can successfully get to his right on immigration (likely) and thereby induce voters who care deeply about this issue to stay home if not to vote for her outright. Of course, it's possible that McCain pulls enough independent-minded "upbeats" to overwhelm any paleo-bleeding to the Democrats, but that's a bet, not a certainty.
I'm not sure what advice to give McCain on this one. In theory, someone with as much credibility as he has with pro-immigration types would be in an excellent Nixon-goes-to-China position. But (a) McCain doesn't want to go to China; (b) immigration isn't China. Nixon was breaking with Republican anti-Communist tradition by going to China; Bush, similarly, is breaking with Republican opposition to mass immigration by strongly supporting open borders, as is McCain, so for McCain to backtrack on immigration would be like Nixon (or Bush) tilting towards Taiwan. I suspect the best McCain can hope for is for the immigration-restrictionist vote to turn out to be vastly smaller than the percentage of voters who say they favor a restrictionist policy, so that the issue lacks salience in the primaries and no third-party challenge emerges. I'm not deep enough on this stuff to know whether that is the case or not. I will say that, again, expressions of contempt towards those with whom he disagrees on this policy issue exacerbate what I expect will be McCain's most intractable difficulty in securing the GOP nomination.
It's interesting from my perspective that the conventional wisdom is that McCain's biggest problem is the opposition of social conservatives. McCain has made it abundantly clear that he will play ball with them, and I'm pretty sure they'll play ball with him, particularly since there is no obvious standard-bearer for the Christian Right to coalesce around as an alternative. I also think it's strange that some people think taxes are going to be the big issue for McCain. I think McCain's biggest issues are going to be Iraq and immigration - that is to say: the same issues that Bush has. And the big economic policy area where I think McCain should worry segments of the GOP coalition is in the area of business regulation. I expect McCain to do fine - maybe much better than fine - on budgetary and tax matters, and considerably better than Bush on spending and trade. And his credibility as someone not in the pocket of big business makes it more likely that he could succeed with market-friendly reforms to entitlements than Bush has been. But McCain is a regulator; he believes in competition, but he thinks government needs to step in to make sure the market is competitive, just like his hero Teddy Roosevelt. Sometimes McCain is right about this, by the way, but he can clearly err in a regulatory direction in ways that will annoy conservatives as well as business. All-in, I think the McCain basket on economic questions is one conservatives should grab with both hands, but he's certainly not a Club for Growth purist if that's your bag.