Since at least the 2000 Republican primaries, it has become difficult for conservatives to appreciate two things about John McCain. The first is that he was for many years considered a mainstream Reagan conservative. As late as 1996, McCain was supporting Phil Gramm for president over Bob Dole. Something in the late 1990s snapped.
The second thing conservatives have trouble appreciating about McCain is exactly why he is so popular with the media. It isn’t just because he is willing to take liberal positions campaign-finance reform, immigration or climate change, although that certainly helps. McCain is a politician reporters enjoy covering.
Libertarian journalist Matt Welch — formerly of the Los Angeles Times, now at Reason — helps provide a refresher course on both topics. Although McCain: The Myth of a Maverick is correctly billed as a “hard-hitting, skeptical look” at its subject, there are sections where the reader can’t help but like McCain. Drawing on Robert Timberg’s work and other sources, Welch retraces McCain’s evolution from a young brawler to a rebel with a cause in the Navy and in captivity in Vietnam.
In December 1968, when the Vietnamese held a Potemkin Christmas service for the prisoners of war in front of the propaganda cameras, McCain spoiled the effect by repeatedly shouting, “F**k you!” to his captors. The determination, the scrappiness, the earthy humor, and salty talk — these are some of the characteristics McCain fans find so endearing.
It takes a bit more reading between the lines to discern from Welch, who is himself no conservative, how McCain fell out of favor with so much of the Right. But the information is there. Welch documents that McCain differed from his Senate predecessor Barry Goldwater in important ways from the very beginning, only to see the contrasts grow during his public life.
Where Goldwater entered politics to keep the federal government limited by the constraints of the Constitution, McCain saw politics as a noble calling that could help the American people achieve great things. Eulogizing Goldwater in 1998, McCain praised the 1964 Republican presidential nominee for serving “a cause greater than his own self-interest.” To which Welch responds, “Thus was being submerged within the greater good one of the greatest champions of the individual in modern U.S. history.”
Even if it took years for McCain to break with economic conservatives as sharply as he did when he voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, Arizona’s senior senator never shared Goldwater’s libertarian leanings. He believed that no matter how rugged the individualism, it derived its meaning for service to a greater purpose.
This might not have produced any split with other conservatives if McCain did not so regularly confuse government interventions with a “greater purpose.” Welch discusses McCain’s proclivity to regulate, in the name of character and the greater good, everything from emissions to political expression to professional sports.
At the same time McCain was becoming more statist in domestic policy, he began to embrace a more activist U.S. foreign policy. While always an anti-communist who favored a strong national defense, McCain initially was very reluctant to use force. He opposed committing American peacekeepers in Lebanon, feared our troops being drawn into Central American civil wars, and was skeptical of intervening in the Balkans. By Kosovo, McCain was as willing to use force abroad as he was ready to commence the surge ahead of the Bush administration.
Over time, Welch argues, McCain’s personal code of honor, his conception of citizenship he developed while in the military, and his enduring admiration for boyhood heroes like Teddy Roosevelt grew into 12-step politics — a faith in the redemptive power of government. Coinciding with the late 1990s talk of “national greatness conservatism,” McCain began to get himself in scrapes with fellow Republicans.
Welch doesn’t always paint a flattering picture of McCain’s personal qualities. In his telling, McCain was far more beholden to big money, guilty of elitism, and susceptible to bending the straight talk than the conventional wisdom holds. On many of these points, especially the first, the historical record is clear, but that doesn’t stop Welch from occasionally overreaching.
When McCain gives an awkwardly phrased answer to a question on gay marriage, only to restate his opposition to the practice later, Welch calls it a flip-flop. Yet a fairer reading of McCain’s comments might be that the senator would neither grant government recognition to same-sex relationships nor try to crack down on them by, say, making commitment ceremonies illegal. The author also cherry-picks, making it seem as though McCain only decided that Roe v. Wade should be overturned last year. Welch sometimes tries too hard to make McCain’s occasionally hyperbolic statements of normal patriotism sound like a nationalist crusade.
Yet Welch is on firmer ground describing McCain’s embrace of campaign-finance reform, the crusade that ruptured his relationships with single-issue conservative groups and for a time pushed McCain to the left domestically. Borne of his dejection following the Keating Five scandal, Welch compares it to “an alcoholic using the federal government to lock up his own liquor cabinet.”
Now McCain is in the fight of his political life, launching what will surely be his last presidential bid. Whether Republican primary voters will view his candidacy as a call to arms or a tired maverick act remains to be seen.
– W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.