John McCain is not a conservative, but I will vote for him anyway.
After all, in 1952, conservatives, grumbling that Ohio senator Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft had not been nominated, voted for Eisenhower because he was clearly the better alternative to Adlai Stevenson. And they voted for Ike again over Stevenson in 1956.
In 1971, a Who’s Who of conservatives, including the senior editors of National Review, suspended their support of President Nixon because of both his domestic-policy failures and his tendencies in foreign policy.
In 1972, however, National Review endorsed the reelection of Nixon, describing the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, as “not something with which a grown-up superpower can play.”
Was Eisenhower a conservative? No. Nixon? No. Bush (either one)? No. McCain? No. Republicans, yes — it’s a famously big tent — and with some conservative positions. But having conservative positions is not the same as being a conservative.
What is a conservative? Essentially, someone who is temperamentally suspicious of government. That’s why conservatives argue for limited government, economic freedom, low taxes, and fewer regulations. The bumper-sticker version might be: “If in doubt, keep government out.” That demonstrates a healthy skepticism of both government’s competence (think Katrina clean-up) and its fuzzy benevolence, which generally involves toying with any activity that begins with the letters A through Z, scolding people for their behavior (and, er, persuading them to change it), or redistributing their wealth.
The skeptical view of the redistributionist function of government can be described, with apologies to William Graham Sumner, as A and B deciding how much C should give to D.
The behavior-modification efforts of government can be seen in innumerable campaigns and diktats like anti-smoking and anti-obesity crusades and campaign-financing laws.
A useful rule of thumb is: No one who voted for, or signed, the McCain-Feingold Act can be considered a conservative. Unless he recants and repents.
John McCain also opposed Bush’s tax cuts (though his vote may have been less an anti-tax-cut vote than an intemperate anti-Bush vote — but that is not good either) and he favors global-warming programs that most conservatives think are foolish and harmful (if in doubt, keep government out). And — sigh! — he favors importing prescription drugs from Canada, which is not just economic nonsense of the first order but suggests college-level economic illiteracy.
Nevertheless, McCain is clearly a Republican, with some conservative positions. He has promised to appoint judges who will interpret the law, not make it. He has promised to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. And he has promised to fight government spending, to veto any bill with earmarks, and to roll back entitlement programs–positions that, these days, it is an act of nostalgia to describe as “Republican.”
Meanwhile, Senator Barack Obama has been named the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate by National Journal. Senator Clinton can’t be far behind. Against them, Senator McCain would seem the obvious choice for conservatives. But some of them think a term or two in the political wilderness would be beneficial.
Conservatives have been here before. As National Review said in 1972, “There are those, including some of our colleagues, who believe that four years of McGovern would catalyze a recrudescent conservatism. We disagree that the chance is worth taking. McGovern is the erector set of big-think intellectuals, otherworldly dreamers, and children. Belloc warned that dangerous toys should not be given to little boys.”
Senator McCain might help his cause with conservatives if he stopped calling himself a conservative. He is damaging their brand name. And conservatives should stop, now, demanding that he be a conservative: that is not a condition precedent for being the better choice for president. Conservatives should remember that the fault McCain is not a conservative is partly their own: They have not succeeded in making conservatism the iPod in the marketplace of political philosophies.
To conservatives, John McCain sounds like the Devil. That is his fault, not theirs. He has dissed them and enjoyed it. That is not presidential, and if he does not stop he will not be president. He should make–and is making–amends, and not for his own sake, or for the conservatives’, but for the country’s.
It is time for conservatives to accept reality (accepting reality is another conservative trait); and the reality is (1) John McCain will be the Republican nominee for president and (2) he will make a far better president than the Democratic alternative.
Dangerous toys should not be given to little boys.
Or to little girls.
– Daniel Oliver was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Reagan. He is now a senior director at White House Writers Group and chairman of the board of National Review.