Politics & Policy

The Full McCain

An interview.

In National Review’s latest cover story, Ramesh Ponnuru makes “The Case for McCain.” Here’s the full transcript of the interview Ponnuru did with the Arizona Republican senator for the piece.

Senator John McCain: Glad to see you.

Ramesh Ponnuru: Thank you

Sen. McCain: I got some encouraging news this morning in the USA Today.

Ponnuru (reading headline): “McCain firm on Iraq war. . .” (McCain flips the paper over.) “Despite cost to candidacy”: even better. . .

Sen. McCain: (Laughs) Yep. They’ve got a poll that says 33 percent are much less likely, and 11 percent somewhat less likely to [vote for me]

Ponnuru: So do you think that’s already been costing you? That that’s behind some of the slides in the polls?

Sen. McCain: First of all, I don’t know. But second of all, I can’t worry about it. You just can’t, with something like this you just can’t let it concern you. The issue is too important. The sacrifice that so many young Americans have made already pales in significance to any cost that it may mean to me. You’ve seen these wounded kids, you know how much they’ve given.

Ponnuru: But is the country prepared to give more? The Post had a story on the front page that people want a deadline.

Sen. McCain: Well, I think that it’s the job of people like me to explain to them what’s at stake here. It isn’t just Iraq. I really believe that chaos will ensue, genocide will take place, and unlike after we lost the Vietnam War when they didn’t want to follow us home, these people want to follow us home. I think what’s at stake here is this entire struggle we’re in — you know I hate to use the word war, because then you give people legitimacy as soldiers — but the struggle that we’re in against radical Islamic extremism.

And so for me to somehow trim my sails on an issue like this would be just a disservice to the nation.

Ponnuru: Is there a way to continue to fight the war on Islamic extremism while also repairing some of our diplomatic relations? With Europe in particular?

Sen. McCain: I think we probably could improve our image a great deal, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But the United States leads. The United States is the world’s superpower. We lead. There are many benefits of being the world’s superpower, and there’s also occasionally great sacrifices [that] have to be made.

If the United States militarily were in the same situation as our European friends are, we’d probably be much more diplomatically inclined. I think it’s not worth dragging out. But the Europeans because of their lack of expenditure and lack of real military capabilities of course always want to pursue a diplomatic approach to whether it be the Iranians or anything else.

Look. We had Jim Jones, who you know is one of our great generals, talk about how difficult it was to pry two additional helicopters out of our entire NATO alliance just to get to Afghanistan.

Ponnuru: So: Speak softly, carry no stick.

Sen. McCain: There you go. I think that’s pretty, a very good description. And thank God for the Dutch, believe it or not, and the British, and the Canadians for their help in Afghanistan. But other countries are not very useful when they place such strenuous conditions on the actions that their troops can take.

Ponnuru: Turning to domestic issues: Why do you think President Bush failed to get Social Security reform? How do we start entitlement reform?

Sen. McCain: I favor strongly retirement savings accounts, personal savings accounts, whatever you want to call them. And I think every young taxpayer should have the ability to make an investment in their own retirement. But if I had to look back, and hindsight is always perfect, I might emphasize more the criticality of the system itself and add the requirement to have personal savings accounts. Do you see what I mean?

Ponnuru: Get it to balance first?

Sen. McCain: Yeah, I’d start at the chart: “You’ve got this much money coming in, you’ve got this much money going out, here’s where there’s more money coming in and here’s where there’s no money left. Now, where do you want to fix it?” You see what I mean?

And the second thing I would’ve done, I would have made it very clear to the American people that the Democrats would not sit down and negotiate. In 1984 for better or for worse Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill stood together in the Rose Garden. You know, I didn’t take any kind of a leading role in this issue, I really didn’t. I’m all for reform, but I just wasn’t. Lindsey Graham did. Lindsey Graham sat down with a bunch of Democrats, individually or one or two. And said “Let’s try to work this out,” and he just got no response. You see what I mean?

Ponnuru: So what can you do under those circumstances?

Sen. McCain: You go to the American people, you go on television and you go out on the hustings: all of those things that the President did. But I don’t think that they got the message of how broken the system is. You see what I mean? All of the media coverage seemed to center around retirement savings accounts, which again, I’m unalterably in favor of, totally in favor of, but somehow the media [made it]: “Bush hypes retirement saving accounts.” I would’ve liked to have seen the headline: “Bush: System is going to go bankrupt. Present-day workers will not receive the same benefits as present-day retirees.”

If I were president, I’d have three agenda items (assuming that immigration reform is somehow addressed). Do away with wasteful spending, take every step necessary to do away with wasteful spending. Second, Social Security reform. Third, help Medicare and Medicaid. Why in that order? Because I think you can succeed in the first two far more easily than the third. Because the third is far more complex an issue. I can explain the Social Security problem to any group of Americans in five minutes.

Ponnuru: Medicare takes 15, 20?

Sen. McCain: You know there are so many different facets of it, you know.

Ponnuru: So is your thinking that once you’ve made progress on spending on Social Security–

Sen. McCain: Success breeds success.

The other thing I’ve been kicking around and I haven’t talked to my advisers about it is, what about a tax-simplification commission that would require an up-or-down vote by Congress? I’m not saying I’m taking that position, but obviously we need to do something to simplify the tax cut. But I probably shouldn’t even have said it because I haven’t run it by my folks yet.

McCain staffer Mark Salter: No you haven’t.

Sen. McCain: What’s that? (Laughs).

Tax simplification is a priority. Exactly how you go about it, let me amend my comments earlier, exactly how you have to go about it is not clear. You’ve got to do it.

I sat next to the president of Estonia at a lunch in Germany. And Estonia has a 22% flat tax. You can enter your name in a computer, you will see your tax return and you click “yes” or “no.” And they’ve got something like 99.8% compliance. I’m not saying we will ever accept a flat tax, given the way our taxes are structured, but certainly isn’t there an argument for tax simplification in America?

Ponnuru: If you could get the Democrats to agree, or at least to come to the table on entitlements or on tax simplification, are those circumstances under which you’d be willing to accept a tax increase?

Sen. McCain: No; no.

PONNURU:  No circumstances?

Sen. McCain: No. None. None. Tax cuts, starting with Kennedy, as we all know, increase revenues. So what’s the argument for increasing taxes? If you get the opposite effect out of tax cuts?

PONNURU: There’s been a lot of talk after the election that you’ve got all these new populist Democrats who are suspicious of free trade. Is there any way to make further progress with trade liberalization or is that over for the foreseeable future?

Sen. McCain: I’m very worried over about the rising tide of protectionism, which was manifested in the last election. I’m a free trader. Since Phil Graham left, there’s no greater free trader in the Senate than I am. I’m very concerned about protectionism. And one of the aspects of this is we got to try to make sure that the impacts of free trade, which overall are incredibly beneficial, but we’ve got to make sure we try to assist those displaced workers that are affected by the impact of free trade.

By the way, I noticed this morning, a Toyota plant is going to be opening in Mississippi. That was on this morning’s news. You hear about the 13,000 that were laid off at Chrysler, you don’t hear about the 50,000 Americans who now make their living off of eBay.

Ponnuru: Insourcing.

Sen. McCain: Exactly.

I study history all the time. Every time the United States has practiced protectionism we’ve paid a very heavy price for it. Some even claim, with some authenticity, that the Smoot-Hawley tariff acts was a major contributor to the outbreak of World War II, not to mention the Great Depression.

Ponnuru: Is your party where it needs to be on global warming yet?

Sen. McCain: It varies in my party, so I can’t say “my party.” But where I think our party needs to be is to be more involved in market-based economically beneficial green technologies which will then reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

In other words, Lieberman’s and my cap-and-trade proposal is market–based. General Electric, the world’s largest corporation believes they’re going to make profits off of green technologies. I was just out at the port of Los Angeles with Schwarzenegger and BP is going to sequester carbon and take some offshoot materials and convert them into some kind of fuel, as I understand it. That’s going to be beneficial to BP to do that; in other words, it’s economically profitable to do these things.

So I think that what my party needs to do is to emphasize technologies which are profitable and free-market oriented. And a huge part of that in my view is nuclear power. Nuclear power is safe, it’s inexpensive, and all we need to do is get over this problem about the waste. I don’t diminish that problem psychologically, but I certainly do diminish it technologically. The French are generating 80 percent of their electricity today from nuclear power. And I don’t often like to imitate the French, but the fact is that there are a number of countries that have been able to handle this waste issue very effectively. We reprocess or we find a place to store it.

Ponnuru: Nevada?

Sen. McCain: Sure. Or, in South Carolina, they had a plant that until Carter cut it off was going to be reprocessing. Now I’m not saying either one. Let’s just settle it. And maybe storage is an easier thing than reprocessing. I don’t know. But we’ve got to examine whatever viable options there are to take care of the waste issue.

But when you’ve got this T.U.X., whatever the outfit was, that just bought out or leveraged out that utility company in Texas, they were going to build a whole bunch of coal-burning plants. I would hope that we could somehow incentivize industry to go back to nuclear power in a big way. I’m for wind, I’m for solar, I’m for tide, I’m for all of those clean technologies, but when you really look at it and look at the amount they contribute to our nation’s energy requirements they are not large. And that’s why nuclear power can be a significant contributor to clean, no greenhouse-gas emitting technology.

Ponnuru: One of the stumbling blocks people sometimes have is that they look at these proposals to deal with the problem and they seem, not the ones you’re talking about but some of these other ones, incredibly draconian, like Kyoto, and then you look at the pay-off and it’ll solve 0.7 percent of the problem. Is the problem so enormous that these kinds of measures can’t really get you very far?

Sen. McCain: [They can] if they’re market-based. If business and industry sees a way to make money and get returns to their stock holders, then they’re going to move in that direction. And I really believe that again, this cap and trading thing, which is still being sorted out a bit in Europe, is a good market-based approach to it. And again, carbon sequestration is fine, all of these things are fine, but if you want an immediate impact on reduction of greenhouse gases then start building nuclear power plants. And I’m not saying that’s the only answer but I think it’s a significant part of the answer.

Ponnuru: Do you think there’s a strategic or geopolitical component to this issue?

Sen. McCain: Sure. I don’t think Chavez in Venezuela is crazy enough to cut off Venezuelan oil to the United States, but should we be dependent on his temperament? In Nigeria we continue to hear problems there, Iraq, Iran, et cetera.

In many parts of the world where we are dependent upon our oil supply there’s either instability or challenges. So I think it is a national-security argument to reduce our dependency on importing oil.

Ponnuru: What kind of judges would President McCain be looking for?

Sen. McCain: Strict interpreter of the Constitution. I’m proud of what the Gang of Fourteen did. I’m proud that we got two Supreme Court justices that will be the best I think, perhaps ever. I’m proud of that we got a whole flood of federal and appellate-court justices through without a single one being rejected because we framed the criteria as quote “extraordinary circumstances.” And seven Democrats on our gang never saw quote “extraordinary circumstances.” The proponents of the nuclear option wanted 51 votes. Suppose that the Democrats keep their Democrat majority and you get a Democrat president, do you want judges confirmed by 51 votes now? I don’t think so.

Ponnuru: Would Republican senators be willing to filibuster a Democratic nominee?

Sen. McCain: Sure. I mean, I would if — that’s my right as a senator, if the nominee was unacceptable, of course. This is this fight we’ve got going on these resolutions on the floor of the Senate right now. Democrats won’t allow us a vote on our amendment that we want to consider.

Ponnuru: So you think that the Gang of Fourteen deal — that without it, it would have been harder to get Roberts and Alito?

Sen. McCain: I think it would have been almost impossible. That’s why they called it the nuclear option: The Senate was going to blow up. And certainly it wasn’t clear that they had 51 votes. And I think any observer of the Senate, the way the Senate works, the inner workings of the Senate, could tell you that it was going to blow up the Senate and it was questionable whether they had the 51 votes or not. And I think it was the Senator from Pennsylvania that was quote undecided, wasn’t it? As I recall, I think Specter was, I don’t know, I’m not sure, but. . .

Ponnuru: Shocking.

Sen. McCain: (Laughs).

Ponnuru: Are there any members of the current Supreme Court that you particularly admire or regard as a model?

Sen. McCain: Eh of course, Antonin Scalia. He’s a lot of our conservative models, I admire how articulate he is, but I also from everything I’ve seen I admire Roberts as well.

I think it’s vital to strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States and have a record of that. Not just a statement of it, but a record of it.

Ponnuru: How important do you think it is that there be diversity on the Court? Justice Ginsburg’s been complaining that she’s the only woman left.

Sen. McCain: I love diversity; I think it’s wonderful. But the fact is I think the first criteria ought to be qualifications. But I love diversity. All of us love diversity. I know no one that dislikes diversity –

Ponnuru: You should see some of my mail.

Sen. McCain: – but the first criteria are the qualifications. And by the way, from what I’ve seen you have some good conservative women and quote “minorities” in the courts today, many of them appointments of the Bush administration.

Ponnuru: I was always hoping for a young, Indian-American justice. 

Sen. McCain: I think so, someone with a journalistic background. 

Ponnuru: Yeah. Mix it up a little bit.

Sen. McCain: Gee, that’s a great idea. (Laughs)

Ponnuru: On the question of stem cells. I believe the last time around you voted for federal funding for using the embryos at I.V.F. clinics. Have you reconsidered that? Is that still your view?

Sen. McCain: Yeah. It’s still my view. I’ve watched many close friends suffer from many of these debilitating diseases. I’m for all kinds of stem-cell research. But I would hope that we can make scientific progress so that this wouldn’t be that much of an issue any more but I support federal funding for it and I understand that I have a difference of opinion with some of my friends in the pro-life community.

Ponnuru: All kinds of stem-cell research? What about stem-cell research that involves human cloning?

Sen. McCain: I’m obviously against any human cloning. Obviously.

Ponnuru: Would you be willing to ban it?

Sen. McCain: Sure.

Ponnuru: So you’d support something like the Brownback bill? 

Sen. McCain: Yes. I think I’m a co-sponsor.

Salter: I’ll double check that.

Sen. McCain: I’m pretty sure I’m a co-sponsor on it. [Editor’s note: He wasn’t a co-sponsor in the last Congress, but says he will support it when it is re-introduced in this Congress.]

Could I also tout my pro-life voting record?

Ponnuru: Absolutely.

Sen. McCain: Could I take a moment? Back 25-year now voting record of pro-life, whether it be federal funding for abortion, or whether it be, no matter what it be, I have many, many votes and it’s been consistent. And I’ve got a consistent zero from NARAL throughout all of those years. I may have had some other policy differences with some people in the pro-life community, but my record is clear. And I think the important thing is you look at people’s voting record because sometimes rhetoric can be a little. . . misleading.

Ponnuru: You started out your political career as a pro-lifer.

Sen. McCain: Yes, absolutely. I campaigned in the first primary for Congress in 1982 as a pro-lifer and my voting record over all of those years, and there are many, many votes that are pro-life votes that I’ve taken. Never once has there been a non-pro-life vote.

Salter: The stem-cell issue. . .

Sen. McCain: Okay. Abortion. Let me just say on abortion.

Ponnuru: For such a long time it seems we’ve been in a national stand-off on that issue. How do we move past that on abortion?

Sen. McCain: I think that, as President Bush said when he campaigned, we need to change the culture. As you know I don’t support Roe v. Wade. But we need to change the culture in America as well as returning the decisions to the states. The reason why I voted against the gay-rights amendment, the gay-marriage amendment was because I’m a federalist and I thought that the states should decide; just like on the issue of abortion, I think the states should decide, rather than the way it is now.

Ponnuru: But if federal courts were to move in here then you would change. . .

Sen. McCain: Absolutely. But you know, consistently federal courts have not.

Ponnuru: That’s right. On Roe, you’ve said that not only do you think Roe was a mistake, but that it should be overturned, now. 

Sen. McCain: Yeah. Because I’ve opposed it and that I think the states should — because I thought it was a bad decision, and I think that the decision should be made in the states.

Ponnuru: So you’ve gone further than the president has, because he’s never actually said that it should be overturned. 

Sen. McCain: Well I certainly didn’t support it and I don’t know if it’s going to be [overturned] . . . but I do think it was a bad decision.

Ponnuru: In terms of getting things done as the president, how important is it for your party to take back Congress?

Sen. McCain: Oh, I think it’s very important. But if we’re going to, we’re going to have to go back and convince our base and our independents who’ve supported us that we will restrain spending. We have lost our way on spending; we’ve got to stop this excessive, wasteful spending, which has led to members of Congress going to jail. 

Ponnuru: Is it possible to re-create a bipartisan basis for the war on terrorism?

Sen. McCain: I have to believe so. I have to believe so because I believe that Democrats are patriotic Americans as well. And there are many of them who understand the dimensions and enormity of this struggle we’re in. But it’s going to take the American people also urging them to cooperate on this issue.

Ponnuru: Campaign-finance reform: Is McCain-Feingold the first step? Is there an unfinished agenda here?

Sen. McCain: I think that we need to give this law a chance to work. And there are aspects of it that are being tested in the courts. So I don’t envision any new legislation. I will say that we need to act as regards to the 527s which are a violation of the ’74 law. And 501(c)s, I believe have every right to lay out their agenda. The 527 which is designed to affect the outcome of an election, clearly, in my view should go under campaign-finance limits — contribution limits.

Ponnuru: Does the F.E.C. need to be beefed up? Its enforcement powers?

Sen. McCain: I think the F.E.C. is moving a little bit on this. We’ve seen the courts told them to act on it. I hope they will.

Salter: Senator Reid is actually moving on this because he thinks Republicans are going to have as big of ones as they have.

Sen. McCain:  [Laughs.]

Salter: Whether that’s filtered down to the Democratic commissioners I don’t know.

Sen. McCain: Yeah, but it’s really blatant. I don’t know if you noticed recently, but Move On.Org has been running ads against me with various pictures of me and President Bush together. Some of them are pretty flattering. (Laughter)

Ponnuru: That might help you in the primaries. How do you think President Bush goes down historically?

Sen. McCain:  I think it depends on the war in Iraq because many historians view a president primarily on foreign policy. But I think on domestic policy, I think he should go down very well. He should be judged very, very well as far as the economy is concerned. We’re in a long sustained period of economic growth.

Now, I think there will be justified criticism on spending and expansion of government. Failure to act on Social Security and Medicare reform. But presidents can’t do that by themselves. Ronald Reagan didn’t reform Social Security by himself. I think on the economic and a number of domestic issues I think the president is going to be favorably viewed by historians. On the issue of reining in spending I don’t think that he will be viewed favorably. On the issue of Iraq, I think it’s still to be determined.

Ponnuru: How do you think the president should use the veto power? This is a president who’s used it exactly once.

Sen. McCain: Whenever there’s an earmark, he should use it. And he should make the author of that earmark famous. That’s the only way we’re going to get this spending under control.

I voted against the Medicare prescription-drug bill because I didn’t see a way of paying for it. I opposed the catastrophic [health-care] bill back — remember when we did catastrophic? — for basically the same reason. According to the Government Accountability Office we’ve got a 40 trillion dollar unfunded liability associated with Medicare and I think 6 trillion associated with Social Security. Very tough decisions are going to have to be made beginning in 2009. And if you explain it to the American people and you tell them what’s at stake, they will respond.

But they’ve got to believe that you’re not wasting their tax dollars on bridges to nowhere. They’re not going to respond if they think you’re just frivolously, you know, recklessly spending, not just their tax dollars, but dollars that we don’t have.

Ponnuru: They want you to sacrifice before they will? Is that the issue?

Sen. McCain: Yeah sure, why should they? They’ve got to have a government that can believe in, is reasonably efficient. They don’t expect government to be a model of efficiency but at least to be careful stewards of their tax dollars. And if you can convince them of that — that you’ve eliminated a lot of the wasteful spending — then I think they would be willing to respond to whatever is necessary as far as entitlement reform is concerned. And they also need to be made to understand that every day that goes by that we don’t reform these entitlements, the more draconian the measures are. Because debt piles up. Or the unfunded liabilities pile up.

Ponnuru: A few candidates in this race are at least currently saying that they’re conservatives and have decent records of accomplishment. Why should conservative voters pick you?

Sen. McCain: First of all, because I am a conservative. And I think if you look at my voting record by those people that grade, whether it be Citizens Against Government Waste or the National Taxpayers Union or any of those, that I am a conservative. Second of all, I think that the important issue, the overriding challenge that America faces is this struggle, again, I hate to use the word war, against radical Islamic extremism. And I believe that Iraq is part of that and that’s why I have taken the strong position that I have. Do I believe the war was mismanaged? Absolutely. But I believe we’ve got a new general and new strategy and I think we can win. And I believe we will achieve success. And so, I believe that my background, my experience, my knowledge, and everything in me has prepared me to take on this challenge. And I think I’m more qualified to take on the great challenge of the 21st century.

And my other message to conservatives is: of course there are specific issues that we’ve disagreed on. You and I have not covered them all, I’m happy to say, today. But, overall my record is conservative. But more importantly, who do you feel is most qualified to lead the nation in these very challenging times? And finally, they are incredibly challenging, it’s not just Iraq as you know, but there was a guy named Ronald Reagan who came to power when things were looking pretty bleak as well. He believed our best days were ahead of us, I believe our best days are ahead of us.

Just one other thing. I’ve been saying for a long time that we have to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps. I say that as an old Navy man. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the world, but clearly we need a bigger military, particularly personnel-wise and we need to reform procurement in the military. We’re spending too much money on weapons systems that may not have the highest priority. So we need to look at that too. Not only increase size of the military but are we really training them for the right missions? I think they are in many ways, but I think there are other ways that we have to make sure that they are designed to meet this new challenge.

Ponnuru: We just ran a cover story saying we need to expand the army by former Senator Talent.

Sen. McCain: He was a very good member of Armed Services Committee. And by the way, we can recruit them. It’s a marketplace out there. And they’re a third smaller than they were at the time of Gulf One; it’s not as if we’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. There’s a group of 18 year-olds out there that are going to join because they’re patriots and then there’s another group of 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds, that say, “Hey. What’s the best deal for me for my future? Can I get a free education if I serve four years in the Army?” You know? It’s a marketplace. 

Ponnuru: It’s shocking that we haven’t done that since September 11th, that we haven’t expanded it.

Sen. McCain: I’m astonished. Astonished. But they do have plans to do it now, as you know.

Ponnuru: Thank you, Senator.


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