Politics & Policy

The Meaning of McCain

Republicans assumed that Bush's present trends would continue forever.

Recall, if you will, the episode of the Simpsons when Homer is selected to be a space shuttle astronaut. News anchor Kent Brockman is scheduled to interview the shuttle crew while they are in orbit.

But just before they “switch live” to the crew of the corvair craft, there’s a mishap on board. Homer, unaccustomed to weightlessness, is veering, out of control, straight toward the ant farm the crew brought along for study.

(the ants, seeing Homer homing in on them, break into a panic.

– Protect the Queen!

– Which one’s the Queen?

– I’m the Queen.

– No you’re not.

– Freedom!

– Horrible, horrible freedom!)

When news anchor Kent Brockman cuts to the live feed from the shuttle, the ants float by the camera lens — momentarily appearing gigantic. Then they lose the picture. Brockman instantaneously reports:

“Ladies and gentlemen, er, we’ve just lost the picture, but, uh, what we’ve seen speaks for itself. The Corvair spacecraft has been taken over — ‘conquered’, if you will — by a master race of giant space ants. It’s difficult to tell from this vantage point whether they will consume the captive earth men or merely enslave them. One thing is for certain, there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to…toil in their underground sugar caves.”

When it becomes clear that the bugs are in fact not a “master race of giant space ants”, Brockman quickly removes his “Hail Ants” sign hanging just behind him, covering the station logo.

[Note to readers: The McCain victory is creating all sorts of really fun, but extremely inside-baseball, arguments among conservatives. This G-file gets a little thick with that stuff so, my apologies if you don’t give a damn — that’s why I front loaded the Simpsons quote. Feel free to scroll to the bottom for other info.]

HAIL McCAINThe moral of the story is that journalists (and party hacks) love power. Whether it’s a new insect overlord or a candidate suddenly surging at the polls, the chattering class works under the assumption that whoever has power now will have it for a long time. But, if that not highbrow enough… If that’s not highbrow enough for you, consider George Orwell’s 1946 observation that “Power-worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue.” For more on Orwell and Power-Worship see: G-File 6/8/99. Orwell was writing about how intellectuals and other members of the chattering class tend to be beguiled by whoever holds power at the moment. If the Japanese seized Tobruk, intellectuals assumed that Tobruk was forever a Japanese holding. Until two days ago, the Republican party was pretty much committed to the notion that Bush’s present trends would continue forever.

Now, winning the New Hampshire primary by a mile is not the same thing as a fleeting glimpse of some ants, and John McCain is a great American, not a nefarious enemy. Nevertheless, in the wake of the McCain wallop all bets are off — until South Carolina. As sure as Alec Baldwin has trouble counting when he runs through his supply of fingers and toes, you knew pundits would run from Bush to McCain like a busload of camera-toting Japanese tourists who’ve just been told Graceland can be seen out their left-side window.

Lars Erik Nelson captured the glee and hyperbole of the political press. He wrote in the Daily News, “David beat Goliath.  John Henry whipped the steam drill. Namath led the Jets to a Super Bowl win. To that short list, add Sen. McCain of Arizona who last night trounced Gov. George W. Bush.” McCain’s “landslide win is one of the most stunning political upsets in the nation’s history and one of the most important.” Mark Shields said it was the most significant event of its kind since Henry Cabot Lodge won the New Hampshire primary, which people assure me was very significant.

And then there was the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, who I like and admire a great deal. He got nailed by Howie Kurtz in yesterday’s Washington Post for his 180. Barnes said on Sunday “the only question is whether Bush finishes off McCain in New Hampshire or on February 19th in South Carolina.” Two days later Barnes says of Bush, “Now his nomination is at stake. It’s by no means certain.”

KRISTOL’S “NEW” ERABut a different sort of example came yesterday on the op-ed page of the Washington Post (LINK). William Kristol, the editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard — who is indisputably one of the most capable, honorable and intelligent figures in the conservative movement — is that rarest of creatures: a right-winger who gets good press. Yesterday, once again he displayed his impeccable media timing. He writes that John McCain’s victory represents an opportunity “to articulate a new governing agenda for a potential new political majority.” He suggests, perhaps correctly, that the Republican establishment and the movement conservatives are “living on borrowed time.” McCain represents the future. Now, Kristol is not committing an about-face. He has been criticizing Bush and extolling McCain for months. Instead, the about-face comes from how many people are suddenly agreeing with Kristol — albeit not publicly. He’s a master of the idea-game, so it isn’t surprising that Kristol omitted from his analysis the fact that he holds the ear of McCain and many of his advisers, and that he has used his magazine to trumpet what they call the American, or National, Greatness agenda. McCain is very sympathetic to the Greatness schtick and he has long been touted as the best-suited and most likely candidate to adopt it. Indeed McCain’s speeches are frequently peppered with spices from The Weekly Standard’s rack; “Americans must commit to a cause larger than their own self-interest,” McCain says earnestly and often.

The problem, in my opinion, with the Greatness argument is that there is not much there there. What is American Greatness — other than clever, patriotic packaging — that is different from old fashioned neoconservatism? I have argued until I am blue in the face with Greatness advocates — including the fair Ms. Gavora, who writes speeches for McCain and reveres William Kristol — and I cannot get a satisfactory answer.

In 1997 Kristol and David Brooks launched the opening salvo of their battle in the Wall Street Journal. They argued that “The era of big government may be over, but a new era of conservative governance hasn’t yet begun.” Why? “Unpleasant though it is to admit, a barrier to the success of today’s conservatism is…today’s conservatism.”

What they mean by this is that the old anti-tax, anti-regulation coalition is not sufficient. “Wishing to be left alone isn’t a governing doctrine,” they observe. “Indeed, in recent years some conservatives’ sensible contempt for the nanny state has at times spilled over into a foolish, and politically suicidal, contempt for the American state. A conservatism that organizes citizens’ resentments rather than informing their hopes will always fall short of fundamental victory.” They concluded their broadside with the question, “How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?”

Kristol and Brooks are right that it is untenable in the long-run for Americans to hate their government. But I have yet to learn what a “greatness agenda” would actually be — other than sending men to Mars — that would make the government less deserving of conservative hatred. Few conservatives “hate” the military, because the military fulfills a proper function of government. Who can say the same thing about the Department of Education?

Indeed, most of the precedents cited by these guys seem pretty anachronistic if you think about applying them to today. They talk about land-grant colleges, creating the Department of Agriculture, and all that stuff TR did. But do we need more land-grant colleges? Do we need more regulation? Is there a burning need for another cabinet department? McCain touts campaign finance reform as the centerpiece of his Greatness agenda, but the mechanisms of that reform, I predict, would only lead to more cynicism, not less, as regulation of the political process invariably does. Creating more obscure and incomprehensible laws about how to run campaigns will lead to more people breaking laws that are almost impossible to obey.

What is brilliant about Kristol’s op-ed yesterday is that it smushed his thumbprint on the new conventional wisdom before it hardened. Already, pundits (good and bad) as well as people who read out-loud on TV are buying the notion that McCain represents the end of conservatism and the dawn of a “new era.” But if conservatism’s replacement is American Greatness, I would really like to get a more detailed memo on what that involves before I sign on.

THE END OF CONSERVATISM?McCain’s triumph is big, impressive, and well-won. But is it really the end of conservatism as we know it? Are John McCain and Bill Bradley really vying for the opportunity “to articulate a new governing agenda for a new potential political majority”? Does that mean that Americans are equally persuadable to McCain’s or Bradley’s agendas? Somehow I doubt it. McCain is an at-times-misguided conservative with a well-established track record. Bill Bradley is an old style, arrogant liberal who wants to create a vast new system of entitlement programs. I cannot listen to Bill Bradley without wanting to leave a burning bag of dog droppings on his front door. I listen to John McCain and think, well he’s wrong about this or that, but man he’s cool. I know we are supposed to believe that character and biography are everything right now, but I cannot believe that the American people would be willing to switch gears between these two men simply because they like them both. After all, we have to believe that ideas have some consequences. Don Imus may think that there are no, or few, differences between McCain and Bradley, but Don Imus is the court jester of liberal conventional wisdom. Serious people shouldn’t buy into that.

Couldn’t McCain’s victory have to do with his own innate appeal as a man of honor in this age when people are sick of dishonorable politicians? Couldn’t it have to do with inherent weakness of the Bush candidacy compared to the under-appreciated strengths of the McCain campaign? Couldn’t it have to do with the suspicion that McCain actually might be the better candidate for defeating Al Gore? And, if Bush wins in South Carolina — a much bigger if now that McCain leads in the polls — will it still be the end of an era just because of the New Hampshire primary?

WHAT’S COMIN’ AT YASorry for the missing column yesterday folks. But as I promised I’m sticking to the three a week deal. I had to go to New York for endless web-related meetings and to meet the new NRO staffer. That’s right we’re growing by leaps and bounds. Okay we’re growing by limps and shrugs, but it’s something. In the meantime, there are some other items for you to watch out for. If you want a real example of power-worship you should check out this 1924 obituary of VI Lenin by The Nation.

Also, I still owe you people a “Magazine Arguments” piece on the Jonathan Rauch article in the current issue of Reason. While you’re waiting for that we should have another Magazine Arguments piece, by Nicholas Schulz, on the bizarre yet compelling Hayek profile in the current issue of the New Yorker.

And, some of you may have heard about the print gang calling for Forbes to withdraw from the race, if you haven’t check it out by going here [Link defunct].

As you can see — if you look around — the site is under near constant redesign. The webguy has sniffed so much glue we now just call him uni-nostril because, well, you get the picture..


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