Politics & Policy

McCain’s Missed Opportunity

The maverick outmaneuvers himself.

It’s been a week since Democrats in the House of Representatives chose to go on vacation without renewing the intelligence community’s legal authority to monitor the people trying to kill us. So what’s the presumptive Republican presidential nominee doing?

Why, he’s going right after Democrat frontrunner Barack Obama on the gripping issue of our time: non-mandatory campaign-finance guidelines.

#ad#That’ll show ‘em. Can’t you just feel the excitement? Why, if I were Chris Matthews, I’d be getting one of those tingles up my leg about now.

John McCain is going to be the Republican candidate. Given the options, he’s going to collect votes on the Right. But there’s a reason many of us will never warm up to him. He almost never fails to disappoint — or, better, to rankle.

The shameful roulette game Democrats are playing with our national security ought to be tailor-made for McCain. Surveillance is patently vital to protecting Americans, so much so that, to preserve it, the Bush administration made agonizing concessions during negotiations over intelligence-reform legislation. That cleared the way for overwhelming bipartisan assent in a Senate controlled by Democrats. Yet, it isn’t just House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s charges fighting this bill. McCain’s two plausible rivals in the fall campaign, Obama and the fading Sen. Hillary Clinton, are in the opposition.

Not only, therefore, do we have a national-security crisis. We have it over an issue that lends itself to what McCain sees as his signature selling point: commander-in-chief-ready strength and experience. Simultaneously, the issue exposes McCain’s competitors as captives of the fringe Left, out of step with mainstream Democrats — which, today, is saying something.

Moreover, the security issue resonates powerfully with conservatives. We are the constituency whose enthusiastic support McCain plainly lacks but desperately needs if he is to have a prayer in November. Thus, this is a chance for him to draw the sharp contrast, to say: “I’m over here with you; they’re over there with MoveOn, the ACLU and CAIR.”

In short, for McCain, intelligence reform is a home-run waiting to happen. Nevertheless, but for some tentative swings in the on-deck circle, he’s not exactly tripping over himself to step into the batter’s box.

How could this be? I suspect it’s because when you check the record on stepped-up intelligence collection, as on many other things, John McCain has been, well, John McCain.

The NSA’s warrantless-surveillance program, targeting suspected terrorist communications into and out of the United States, was exposed by McCain’s erstwhile admirers at the New York Times in late 2005.

So what was the senator’s first response? Was it to study the matter carefully? Weigh the exigencies confronting President Bush after a massive attack on the homeland by an enemy capable of, and determined to carry out, more of the same? Educate himself on applicable principles that stretch back to the Civil War era Prize cases and beyond? Note that goo-gobs of precedent affirm the sovereign’s power to search without warrants when our borders are breached?

No. McCain went maverick. His first reaction was to pronounce that President Bush had acted illegally.

On the day the Times broke the story, before any in-depth analysis could conceivably have been done, the senator — who is not a lawyer and demonstrates little interest in legal theory — was quick to tell MSNBC, “Theoretically, I obviously wouldn’t like it” (i.e., the NSA program).

A month later, he decided he knew enough to opine for Fox’s Chris Wallace that the President lacked the authority to conduct warrantless wiretapping. McCain thus strode into familiar territory: anchoring the cadre of Republican moderates generally available to the Left to hammer the Right during high-profile debates. Among others, the ACLU, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Baltimore Chronicle made note that, regardless of President Bush’s claims to the contrary, the maverick deemed the program unlawful.

Recall that the NSA controversy broke right as Democrats were closing ranks for their last national-security dereliction, blocking reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Concurrently, McCain was rallying Congress to extend interrogation protections to terrorists, against futile opposition from the White House. Still, without a trace of irony, McCain expressed bewilderment at the president’s failure to extend the hand of friendship on surveillance.

#page#

“Why not come to Congress?” he asked Wallace. After all, “we can sort this all out.” Snug in his alternative universe, the Washington establishment’s favorite Republican insisted, “I know of no member of Congress, frankly, who, if the administration came and said here’s why we need this capability, that they wouldn’t get it.”

No member? Senator McCain meet Senator Obama. Meet Senator Clinton. Meet Speaker Pelosi and all the rest of the kumbaya caucus. Yes, indeedy, how could anyone imagine such fair-minded statesmen — members of Congress, after all — refusing to authorize whatever surveillance authority the president needed to protect American lives?

#ad#For once, it might be remembered, President Bush opted not to be a silent punching bag while the opposition wrote the narrative. He was deeply invested in the NSA’s terrorist-surveillance program. He defended it promptly and with gusto. Edified that the administration was trying to stop the next 9/11 rather than reconstruct the SS, public opinion swung strongly in favor of the program — such that Democrats, for all their bombast, never dared attempt to defund it.

McCain, with his eye on the nomination, duly changed course. By late January 2006, only a few days after the Fox interview, the revised “straight talk” was applauding the administration and asserting that “the American people would strongly support the ability of the president to go after al-Qaeda and use whatever technical means necessary in order to make sure we make America safe.”

But the damage was done. The president had tried precisely to make sure he was doing all he could do to make America safe. He had used his constitutional authority in the post-9/11 crisis and had pressed the telecommunications industry to help. In response, McCain had gone on record labeling the action illegal.

Now flash forward to the current impasse over surveillance authority. The sticking point for Democrats is immunity for the telecommunications companies. Their position on the NSA program’s propriety is the same one McCain once held. If they are right (and they’re not), immunity would mean excusing not mere policy differences but violations of law. That, they sanctimoniously insist, is why they are bucking commonsense reform measures without which the nation is increasingly vulnerable.

Clearly, McCain doesn’t agree. To his credit, he made a point last week of leaving the campaign trail so he could get to Capitol Hill and vote for the Senate’s intelligence bill. And since then, the few times he’s engaged on the issue, he has criticized Democrats for denying our intelligence services the tools necessary to protect us.

But we’re in a national crisis. Senator McCain ought to be making himself the face of the solution. He’s not. And it has to be because, if he took on the battle, he’d inevitably remind conservatives (and everyone else) that — as with tax cuts, immigration, the Bush judicial nominations, interrogation policy, etc. — this is yet another issue on which he’s made common cause with the wrong side.

So, while Rome burns, we’re talking about campaign-spending limits. This is going to be a long nine months.

Andrew C. McCarthy, an NRO contributing editor, directs the Center for Law & Counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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