Many conservatives realistic enough to know there will never be “another Reagan” nevertheless wish at least for another Barry Goldwater. They don’t realize that we already have one. His name is John McCain.
Granted, McCain is more like the Goldwater of 1981 than like the conservative standard bearer of 1964. At age 72, Goldwater was, like the 72-year-old McCain today, a former conservative firebrand who long since had become a source of frustration for many conservatives. He actually started frustrating them during his presidential campaign 17 years earlier when he summarily replaced the mastermind who won him the nomination, Clif White, with an entirely different campaign team for the fall — and then proceeded to run a campaign as if he didn’t really care about winning, but just about spouting off. He also never repaid Ronald Reagan’s great support for his campaign with anything even approaching loyalty in return, going so far as to support Gerald Ford against Reagan for the Republican nomination in 1976 and again withholding his support for Reagan in the primaries in 1980. In fact, he also had lost touch with his own constituents. Goldwater survived his own Senate re-election campaign in 1980 by the skin of his teeth, pulled across the finish line almost despite himself by the strength of the Reagan landslide at the top of the ticket along with a determined effort on his behalf by pro-life voters.
At least Goldwater was still pro-life in 1981. And he never gave up his small-government predilections, nor his support for a strong defense and for meeting the needs of individual servicemen. Irascible, iconoclastic, sometimes a bit profane, always his own man and nobody else’s, the Goldwater of 1981 was a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon — but he still had a lot to offer his country, working ceaselessly with Alabama Rep. Bill Nichols during Goldwater’s final term to re-organize the military command structure in a way that succeeded tremendously well when first put to a real test during the Gulf War of 1991.
AS WITH GOLDWATER, so with McCain. Irascible, iconoclastic, sometimes a bit profane, always his own man and nobody else’s, McCain is a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon — but still with much to offer his country. We all know, of course, why so many of us are so often so angry with McCain — his sometimes bizarre heresies from conservatism, his insulting language and hair-trigger temper toward conservatives who disagree with him — but we spend too little time acknowledging the man’s strengths. On those issues on which Goldwater was strongest, about which he cared most deeply and on which he was most identifiably conservative, McCain is as strong or stronger than any national leader in the past 20 years.
Consider the fight against outrageous government spending. No major party nominee since Goldwater, Reagan included, has been as consistently and bravely dedicated to fiscal discipline as has McCain. Last week he both made a superb campaign speech and penned a hard-hitting column for the Chicago Tribune blasting the bloated, irresponsible Farm Bill for which 80 percent of his colleagues were cravenly voting. Likewise, McCain’s longstanding record of opposing purely local pork barrel projects — “earmarks” — is well known, and utterly unmatched. McCain also consistently has opposed expansion of entitlement programs, which of course are the biggest long-term fiscal problems facing this nation. Indeed, entitlements collectively represent an absolutely deadly time bomb, and McCain might be the only man in American politics today with the will power, the moral standing, and the sheer cussedness needed to defuse it.
Similarly, McCain has proposed the most free-market-oriented health care reforms imaginable from a national party nominee during a contentious campaign. And on taxes, the fact remains that McCain has never, not once, supported an income-tax rate hike. He calls for corporate tax deductions and seems genuinely committed to fighting, really fighting, to make most of President Bush’s tax cuts permanent.
Now there may be a problem with McCain and judges; I, for one, do not believe that he cares enough about textualist judges to make appointing them a priority. But even here the choice is clear: With McCain, if we are unlucky, we will get appeals court and Supreme Court judges and justices of the Sandra Day O’Connor/Anthony Kennedy variety, or maybe like uber-moderate Lewis Powell; better still, we may get lucky and get an occasional Sam Alito through the Senate gauntlet. With Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, though, the best we’ll ever get is another Stephen Breyer — and that’s only if Obama/Clinton makes a mistake. Most likely, we’ll get William Brennans and Ruth Bader Ginsburgs aplenty. I’ll take an O’Connor any day over a crafty, heavily politicized Brennan.
Finally, nobody can doubt McCain’s love of country, his dedication to a strong defense, his concern for our military personnel, or his bedrock belief in American exceptionalism and commitment to victory for the United States over its many dangerous enemies.
These conservative virtues of McCain are no mere projections of our own hopes. Instead, McCain has proved his embodiment of these virtues through a lifetime of service.
YES, WE ALL KNOW how when McCain does disagree with conservatives, he has seemed to take great delight in not just abandoning conservatives, but of rubbing our faces in it. We know that even when he tries to make amends, he does almost all the talking and very little listening. We know he can be an SOB. But we also know that on those occasions in which he is our SOB, he can be a tremendously effective one. And on most of the day-to-day issues that have defined conservatism for the past 60 years, he has indeed been our SOB.
Forget 1981: Re-read Goldwater’s Republican National Convention speech of 1964, when he accepted the nomination, and you can easily imagine John McCain speaking all but about two or three lines of the speech with passion and utter sincerity. (He might stumble on Goldwater’s warnings against excessive regulation, unfortunately.)
Particularly, portions of these passages from Goldwater’s speech [emphases added] sound like a back-to-the-future channeling of McCain’s consistent message throughout this current decade:
Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism. Fellow Republicans, it is the cause of Republicanism to resist concentrations of power, private or public, which enforce such conformity and inflict such despotism. It is the cause of Republicanism to ensure that power remains in the hands of the people. And, so help us God, that is exactly what a Republican president will do with the help of a Republican Congress. It is further the cause of Republicanism to restore a clear understanding of the tyranny of man over man in the world at large. It is our cause to dispel the foggy thinking which avoids hard decisions in the illusion that a world of conflict will somehow mysteriously resolve itself into a world of harmony, if we just don’t rock the boat or irritate the forces of aggression — and this is hogwash. It is further the cause of Republicanism to remind ourselves, and the world, that only the strong can remain free, that only the strong can keep the peace.
John McCain is not a conservative champion. But he deeply believes, and strongly champions, many conservative principles, many Goldwaterite principles. We certainly could do worse than to be stuck with him as our own, infuriating, headstrong, bullying, honor-obsessed, indefatigable, and sometimes downright inspirational SOB.