Politics & Policy

Why Endorse McCain?

NR should have refrained from choosing a candidate in Arizona's GOP primary.

I haven’t been keeping score, but my sense has been that National Review stays out of Republican congressional primary races, at least most of the time. This is a good thing. It reflects an ethos focused on the strategic direction of the conservative movement rather than tactical politics. It underscores that issues are more critical to us than personalities.

As a practical matter, moreover, it avoids diminishing the magazine’s prestige. A candidate who wins despite NR’s endorsement of his opponent could become hostile — and less open to our ideas — especially because he knows NR’s endorsement of the other guy will be used by the Left as a cudgel against him. And then there’s NR’s readership: Not only would the magazine appear less influential if its conservative readers reject its preferred candidate; readers will be doubly miffed if their preferred candidate loses a tight general-election race to a leftist who has exploited the NR endorsement.

For all these reasons and more, I was disappointed to see the editors abandon prudent restraint and dive into the 2010 primary fray. More disappointing, though, is that, of all the candidates on whose behalf this improvident decision might have been made, NR’s prestige has been put on the line for John McCain, the incumbent Arizona senator being challenged from the right by former congressman J. D. Hayworth.

As I argued in an extensive analysis of McCain’s policy stands during the 2008 campaign, the senator is not a conservative. He is a big-government progressive in the mold of his hero, Teddy Roosevelt. It is unsurprising, then, that the editors are forced to concede, at the outset of their endorsement, that it would be “an understatement” to say NR “has not always agreed with Sen. John McCain’s judgment.” Understatement indeed: We are talking here about the same John McCain who was beseeched to be the runningmate of John Kerry — perhaps the Democrats’ most left-leaning presidential candidate until Barack Obama came along. The Kerry dance was a natural. As a presidential candidate himself in 2000, McCain had asserted that, if elected, he would turn to Kerry — along with then-senator Joe Biden and Zbigniew Brzezinski (President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser) — “to get foreign-policy, national-security issues back on track.”

The editors’ case for McCain is depressingly weak and bereft of balance. They offer three rationales: (1) that McCain, though not reliable, is “usually . . .  on the conservative side of national controversies”; (2) that “when McCain is right he can have a terrific impact”; and (3) that Hayworth is “not obviously a more exemplary statesman than McCain.” The first claim is meritless, which explains the skewed version of history offered in its behalf. The second claim overrates McCain’s national-security credentials and ignores the horrible impact he can have when he is wrong, which he often is. The third claim — which mugs Hayworth’s reputation after airbrushing McCain’s — is, at best, a basis for hewing to the sage practice of remaining above the endorsement business, not for endorsing McCain.


McCain is no stalwart conservative. The editors’ lawyerly contention that “he has never voted for a broad-based tax increase” conveniently ignores his opposition to the Bush tax cuts, often voiced in cringe-making class-warfare terms — self-righteous rhetoric being a McCain trademark. Obviously, the lapsing of the Bush tax cuts will effect a huge tax increase. It is thus odd for the editors to go mum on McCain’s strident opposition to those cuts while advertising his supposed distaste for tax hikes. But there’s much more to the story than that.

McCain has been an ardent supporter of cap-and-trade, a scheme, forged by suspect global-warming science, to raise tens of billions annually by forcing businesses to purchase carbon-dioxide emissions permits. Proponents resist calling these levies “taxes,” even though they would crush the consumers to whom they would be passed along. (McCain’s rationale, which hasn’t exactly stood the test of time, is that “we stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great.”) As Michelle Malkin recounts, McCain also supported the $700 billion TARP bailout, the $24 billion auto-industry bailout, a $300 billion mortgage bailout, and the first $85 billion AIG bailout. He even wanted to bail out people who’d bought houses they couldn’t afford, with the irresponsible buyers permitted to stay in the homes at government-mandated lower payments. Ordinarily, pols who pretend to be responsible guardians of the public fisc while doling out countless billions of taxpayer dollars would be the object of NR’s scorn. McCain, though, is spared any such accounting.

Besides his allegedly attractive position on taxes, the other piece of the editors’ thin case for “McCain the Usual Conservative” involves the judiciary and life. McCain, readers are told, “has voted for every conservative on the Supreme Court, and he has a long pro-life record.” In point of fact, McCain did not vote for Justice Antonin Scalia, who was confirmed in 1986, the year before McCain began his first Senate term. But let’s give the editors that one — had he been in the Senate, McCain undoubtedly would have voted for Scalia (who was confirmed by a 98–0 vote). My point is that, although McCain did support the remaining three pro-life justices (Roberts, Thomas, and Alito), he has also voted to confirm four justices who’ve upheld abortion rights (Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer). In fact, when it was expedient for him, as a presidential candidate, to try to woo Hillary Clinton supporters disenchanted by Obama’s selection as the Democrats’ nominee, McCain bragged that he had voted for Clinton’s two pro-abortion justices. His confirmation record tells us precious little about his conservative or pro-life credentials.

Furthermore, when it came down to a choice between his pro-life convictions and his passion for unconstitutional (and un-conservative) restraints on political speech, guess which way McCain went? He filed civil actions, which he took all the way to the Supreme Court, beseeching the judiciary to use his campaign-finance law as a basis to muzzle a pro-life group that wanted to run ads against McCain’s fellow free-speech repressor, Russ Feingold — another leftist senator with whom McCain has been comfortable making common cause, notwithstanding Feingold’s 93 percent pro-abortion voting record, his dogged opposition to the Patriot Act, and his filibustering of Bush judicial nominees.

Speaking of which . . . when Republicans had a chance to break the unprecedented Democratic filibuster that was depriving pro-life Bush nominees of seats on the federal bench, McCain — as he is wont to do — joined Democrats and moderate Republicans in the “Gang of 14” compromise. This deal enabled Democrats to continue blocking and stalling confirmations. The resulting empty slots are now being filled with pro-abortion judges by President Obama. McCain, meantime, also supported government funding of stem-cell research that called for destroying human embryos.

The senator, moreover, has spent the time since being thrashed in the 2008 election trying to remake the Republican party in his own moderate, centrist image. If he succeeds, we can now foresee the NR editorial in about 2020 that begins, “For a few years at the start of this decade, not an issue went by, it seemed, without our feeling obligated to criticize the Republican party.”


Point 2 of the editors’ case is gossamer stuff. To be sure, McCain, like the proverbial broken clock, is right on occasion. The editors assert that when this happens “he can have a terrific impact,” especially when it comes to national security, on which he is said to have “a credibility . . . that few other Republicans can match.” Offered in support of this extravagant claim is the Iraq surge, on which the senator surely did show admirable leadership.

Contrary to its mythology, however, the surge’s success is exaggerated, to say the least. For a time, the troop escalation pounded al-Qaeda, and for that reason it was worth doing — as the editors suggest, we might otherwise “have left Iraq in ignominy.” The sad truth, though, is that we are likely to leave Iraq in slow-motion ignominy, because having a strategy for extricating ourselves from Iraq with dignity has never been the same thing as having a strategy for winning the wider war. Al-Qaeda is reportedly resurgent in Iraq, predictably making more mischief as our forces get ready to depart.

Meantime, the other justification for the surge — the bit about building a stable, democratic Iraq that will be a reliable U.S. ally in the war on terror — is in shambles. The new Iraq is a sharia state in which the United States is widely despised. In 2007 BBC polling, 72 percent of Iraqis wanted us out of their country, and 42 percent agreed that attacks on U.S. forces were legitimate — which the Beeb took as a “flicker of optimism” since it was down from 57 percent six months earlier. While semi-autonomous Kurdistan is enveloped in corruption and human-rights abuses, Iran and newly Islamist Turkey wield growing influence in Baghdad. In today’s Iraq, Shiite fundamentalist parties are undermining whatever democratic trappings are in place, American companies are shut out in favor of competitors from China and Russia (the very Saddam sympathizers that energetically opposed the U.S. invasion and delighted in our travails), homosexuals and religious minorities are persecuted, and Israel is not only condemned but boycotted, because, as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani helpfully instructs, “it is not permissible for a Muslim to buy products of the countries that are in a state of war with Islam and Muslims, for example, Israel.” If this is success, what does failure look like?

Still, let’s indulge the “surge saved us” narrative for argument’s sake. If we are going to say that when McCain is right, he can have a terrific impact, does even-handedness not demand an explanation of how, when McCain is wrong, he can have a terrifying impact? And I’m not just talking about immigration (on which he has done a risible, election-season turnabout — and would a post-election 180 surprise anyone?). No one other than President Obama is more responsible than McCain for the calamity that is our interrogation policy. The “maverick” senator demagogued the interrogations issue and pushed through his 2005 McCain Amendment, extending Fifth Amendment protections to detainees held outside the United States. This has given the Obama Justice Department legal cover for its policy of Mirandizing war prisoners. Similarly, McCain’s irresponsible torture rhetoric has given the Obama administration the political cover it needed to disclose classified information about interrogation tactics and to reopen criminal investigations of CIA interrogators. If you want to know why the intelligence community is now getting virtually no intelligence from interrogations, McCain is a big part of your answer.

And then there is McCain’s jihad against the First Amendment. The senator was not content with his statutory ban on political speech. Though he told National Review in a 2007 interview that he would push for no further legislation beyond McCain/Feingold, the senator was even then pleading for a judicial ratcheting up of his speech-stifling law. Ultimately, the Supreme Court rejected his effort to prevent a group called Wisconsin Right to Life from running issue ads that merely urged constituents to contact Senator Feingold’s office and tell him to give Bush judicial appointees an up-or-down vote. Nevertheless, the damage wrought by McCain’s years-long campaign against political speech is incalculable. He has been instrumental in creating the climate that enables such outrages as the Democrats’ ongoing effort to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which struck down restrictions against political expenditures by corporations.

The editors insist that McCain’s “accomplishment” in supporting the surge “more than makes up for” his “mistakes” on issues like free speech and interrogation policy. With respect, I disagree. Iraq is already sliding deep into the Islamist camp, while the surge — which, again, is a strategy for tamping down violence, not winning the war — is being used to justify a futile, prohibitively costly nation-building enterprise in Afghanistan. The United States, by contrast, is plagued by unprecedented assaults on political speech, daunting legal impediments to intelligence-gathering, and a coming reinvigoration of McCain’s immigration gambit. The surge is small compensation for the wages of McCain’s influence.


The editors’ final point is a trashing of J. D. Hayworth. Having generously discounted McCain’s decades of policy error and intemperate outbursts, they seize on a single Hayworth misstep — his appearance, when he was not a public official, in infomercials instructing people on how to get “free money” from the government. This is bizarre: At the very time Hayworth was doing that, McCain was a public official pushing policies that would actually give people free money from the government. Nevertheless, the editors deduce from this episode that Hayworth is “not obviously a more exemplary statesman than McCain.”

“Statesman” is a pretty vague term. Saying one thing and doing another, changing positions in accordance with the electoral calendar — these are evidently not disqualifying. In the last edition of NR, the editors examine the latest global-warming zig-zag by Sen. Lindsey Graham, McCain’s friend and protégé, and pronounce him “a man of fashion — political fashion.” Yet “statesman” is their designation for McCain, who has a prodigious history of just such shenanigans (see, e.g., Rich Lowry’s description of McCain’s dizzying “political shape-shifting” here).

Statesman or not, Hayworth would be with NR on political speech, immigration, interrogations, bailouts, cap-and-trade, tax cuts, keeping Guantanamo Bay open, and embryonic stem-cell research. Can the editors express long-term confidence about McCain on any of these issues, let alone all of them? And if the surge is the thing, Hayworth was in favor of that, too. Hayworth lacks McCain’s gravitas on such matters, you say? Maybe, but as we’ve seen too many times with McCain, gravitas is a double-edged sword.

I’m not arguing that NR needs to love J. D. Hayworth, much less endorse him. Nor do I suggest that the magazine disparage John McCain — it’s done plenty of that over the years. What Arizonans need from NR is what NR has always provided: an explication of principled conservative stands on the issues of the day. Armed with that, Arizonans can figure out which candidate would best serve them. Primary endorsements push us into the spin business, and if we’re going to spin, McCain is not the place to start.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.


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