This article appears in the July-August 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
MY FELLOW SPECTATORIANS, whether you be conservative, libertarian, or a lively blend, let us consider the next most likely residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with particular focus on Sen. John McCain. He is the Republican contender, having for the past 22 years represented Arizona in the Senate from the very seat that Barry Goldwater vacated. His opponent will apparently be Sen. Barack H. Obama, who has represented Illinois in the Senate since beating a former AmSpec summer intern, Alan Keyes, in 2004. Is there, as the political philosophers might inquire, a dime’s worth of difference between these presidential contenders? Does it matter which one will preside over next spring’s White House Easter Egg Roll — if there is to be another Easter Egg Roll. Remember, our nation’s Muslims might object, and also our Hindus and maybe even the ACLU.
I think it does matter. The rudderless Republicans have lost both houses of Congress and will probably lose more seats in the autumn, as they continue their spending revels and their tergiversations from Reagan conservatism. Our economy is fragile and unlikely to be strengthened by the Democrats’ promised panaceas: higher taxes, more government regulators, more bureaucrats, and a lunge at the country’s health providers with the intent of transforming them into the efficiency experts at the U.S. Postal Service. Moreover, there are federal judicial appointments to make, a war on terror to fight, and extravagant government spending to be scotched.
Senator McCain brings with his candidacy a life spent in public service, on which I shall presently elaborate with insights from Grover Norquist, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, and another longtime AmSpec colleague, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. McCain’s public service, however, is not of the kind bragged about by so many conventional Washington figures, which is to say, a life of personal hustle, shameless self-promotion, but with one’s muzzle deep in the public trough and one’s paw outstretched to every passing lobbyist. Public service for McCain began in the United States Navy following the exemplary careers of his father and grandfather. Then in 1982 he won a House seat. Then he replaced the retiring Senator Goldwater.
SENATOR OBAMA too brings with his candidacy a life of public service. He claims it is a different kind of public service than that of “the status quo in Washington,” though it looks like status quo Washington to me — at least as lived by the Clintons, the Gores, and every Kennedy ever heard of. Obama has been a political hustler throughout his adult life, so much so that by the end of his 2004 election to the Senate he was sending aides to Iowa to test his presidential prospects. That was a mere four years ago! Before that he spent eight years as an Illinois state senator, and before that he was a “community organizer.”
Struggling against the “inevitable” 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama began to let the air out of Hillary’s inevitability while speaking in Iowa last November. There he sniped at the frontrunner for being, as the Washington Times reported, “locked in 1960s social and cultural battles.” He also alluded to her 1990s controversies. Yet being a “community organizer” in the late 20th century is sooooo 1960s. It is right out of the playbook of Saul Alinsky, Hillary’s 1960s radical guru. It means that by the mid-1980s Obama was going into poor neighborhoods and organizing anger, channeling it into still more welfare and more government programs, perhaps late-night basketball games (once beheld as an enlightened antidote to urban crime), medical and psychiatric clinics, perhaps curbside aerobics — but little that would grow the economy and create jobs sustainable in the free market.
Recently an Obama adviser told the New York Review of Books’ Elizabeth Drew that “[h]is being a community organizer is the fundamental insight and philosophy of his campaign,” whereupon Drew enthuses that this piece of 1960s nonsense is “a fresh, even revolutionary idea about how to govern.” Note she is not talking about governing a Chicago slum but rather the United States of America. At times I wonder about Miss Drew’s inability to slap her thigh and let out a hearty belly laugh. Something is wrong here.
It is in Obama’s origins as a “community organizer” that we see how truly passe he is. He may be 14 years Hillary’s junior, but his roots in radicalism are surprisingly similar to hers as an acolyte of Alinsky and a defender of Black Panthers both at the Yale Law School and at a left-wing (viz. Communist!) law firm. Spectator readers have been aware of Hillary’s 1960s radicalism since the magazine’s earliest reports in 1992. Now even mainstream journalists are reporting it (see the May 19, 2008 Washington Post) upon detecting hypocrisy in her attack on Obama’s friendship with Bill Ayers. In the heady days of the 1960s Revolution That Never Came, Ayers was bombing government buildings, among them the Pentagon. Years later in Chicago, while serving with Obama in foundation work, Ayers was brazenly unrepentant. In fact, immediately after 9/11 he announced, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” Hillary at least respects her supporters’ intelligence enough to lie about her origins. Obama is sufficiently vain to think he can dupe his supporters by presenting his radical origins as progressive, not “the status quo in Washington.” Well, he has hoodwinked Miss Drew. Perhaps mainstream media will be as slow in catching on to Obama as they were to catching on to Hillary.
OBVIOUSLY TO the keen political eye, Obama is a standard-issue left-liberal Democrat, with a resume very similar to the Clintons’, albeit without the shattered integrity. Last year in The Clinton Crack-Up I predicted that the younger generation of Democrats would challenge Hillary’s nomination and that 2008 would be the last battle between the left wing and the right wing of the historic 1960s generation. Ironically, though the younger generation has whipped Clinton, my prediction is being vindicated. The younger generation’s 46-year-old candidate with the rants of the Rev. Wright and other antique radicals whistling in his ears is going to give the left-wing youth of the 1960s one more run against their right-wing rivals.
McCain, as the New York Times’s Sam Tanenhaus recently observed, is a member of the 1950s generation but with a rebellious streak. Toughened and matured by Vietnam, he returned to America and, as we shall see, took on the Carter administration’s neglect of the military. While doing so he fell in with senior movement conservatives such as Sen. John Tower and with young 1960s movement conservatives such as Dick Allen, later Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, Ed Feulner, later the head of the Heritage Foundation, and John Lehman, President Reagan’s secretary of the navy. All support him today. With some anomalies, McCain’s platform will be an amalgam of their work. My prediction that the 2008 presidential race will be the last great battle between the 1960s left and the 1960s right is holding up, though the standard-bearer from the left is by 1960s demographics wet behind the ears and the standard-bearer from the right is long in the tooth.
Ironically, and notwithstanding McCain’s waywardness, he is conservatism’s best chance to win the White House: for he can attract Reagan Democrats and independents. Many conservatives have been understandably critical of some of the Arizona senator’s feints to the Kultursmog, but for the most part he is conservative, a maverick conservative yet one who will be campaigning on a platform shaped by four decades of the modern conservative movement’s policy desiderata. Moreover, whereas the Republican backsliders on the Hill have deceived us, McCain has been forthright in his disagreements with us. We know where he stands.
Disagreements aside, McCain basically stands with us. Through all the primaries and the months of Republican decline, McCain has survived as conservatism’s best candidate against the phony herald of change now sermonizing for the Democrats. My estimate is that an Obama presidency would be an amusing approximation of the Carter administration, complete with vaporous moralizing and foreign policy bungling. Suspicion that Obama is a reincarnation of Carter increases my interest in a McCain-Obama match up.
IT WAS during the Carter administration that McCain, then a young naval officer, developed the shrewd political instincts that have served him well through 26 years of political campaigns. It was also during the Carter administration that he demonstrated managerial skills that he has yet to brag about, managerial and leadership skills that Obama gives no evidence of possessing. In the campaign ahead one of McCain’s most worrisome weaknesses is his reluctance to brag. In politics humility is not a virtue — breathtaking vanity is. Obama has risen from obscurity by promising to banish politics from politics, though politics is about all he has ever done. McCain has managed billion-dollar budgets, commanded a 75-aircraft squadron, and shaped historic legislation — all before entering politics. I suggest he get the word out.
Returning from five and a half years of torture and unattended wounds, Lt. Cmdr. McCain was told by the doctors that he would never be able to fly combat aircraft again. What the military calls “flight status” was beyond him. He had suffered two broken arms, a broken leg, a broken shoulder, and the consequences of stab wounds to the groin and ankle — none of which had properly healed while he was being tortured by the North Vietnamese. Yet in a show of exemplary fortitude he undertook grueling physical therapy and proved the doctors wrong. He next took command of the Navy’s largest squadron, flying A-7 attack aircraft requiring a budget of more than a billion dollars. But this was post-Vietnam, and, as with so many other sectors of the military, “Skipper” McCain’s squadron was short on parts and maintenance crews. Some 25 of his 75 aircraft were permanently disabled “hangar queens.” McCain got them all up and running.
Looking back on McCain’s revival of his squadron, Lehman, a friend of his from the 1970s, assesses it “a near miracle of leadership and management.” Yet the experience made McCain cognizant of the costs of President Jimmy Carter’s economizing. McCain became Navy liaison to the Senate and in that capacity endeavored to improve procurement and living standards for military personnel. It was during this period, from 1978 into the early 1980s, that he met and worked with such conservatives as Tower, Allen, and Lehman.
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