John McCain: Beyond the Fusionist Pale - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
John McCain: Beyond the Fusionist Pale

The wretched state of the Iraq war is likely to make 2008 a difficult election year for any Republican. To win, the GOP candidate will need to represent the so-called “fusion” of traditionalists and libertarians. At the very core should be a commitment to limited government and individual liberty.

On this score John McCain fails. He’s a courageous man, who endured much while a POW in Vietnam. But the presidency requires good judgment as well as good character. And that McCain lacks.

Columnist Dean Barnett complains that “McCain has seemed determined to remind conservatives of every thumb in the eye he has delivered to the conservative community,” most recently his decision to skip the annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference. But the CPAC snub is merely symbolic. McCain has dissed conservatives most dramatically with his statist, authoritarian positions.

Indeed, McCain cheerfully tells listeners that in 2004 he was considered a potential vice presidential nominee by both parties — not a positive for anyone who actually believes in ideas. Alas, McCain represents the worst values of both parties.

PERHAPS THE KEYSTONE OF MODERN conservative politics is tax reduction. In principle, the most important single objective should be to shrink government spending. Do that, and taxes will follow. In contrast, “starving the beast” by slashing levies, so to speak, doesn’t seem to work: George W. Bush combined tax cuts with mind-numbing outlay increases. Yet constantly raising revenue seems even more likely to inflate government expenditures.

On the tax score McCain is a bust, even though he has voted for some reductions. “John McCain’s overall record on taxes… is profoundly disturbing and anti-growth,” concludes a new report by the Club for Growth.

McCain was one of only two Republican senators to oppose the 2001 Bush tax reduction, and one of just three to vote against the 2003 cut. He was also a fervent opponent. Notes the Club: “The depth of this opposition goes a long way towards tarnishing the Senator’s fiscal credentials.”

Indeed, McCain justified his position with the sort of class warfare rhetoric normally employed by left-wing Democrats. Although any fair income tax cut will deliver more benefits to the wealthy since they pay so much more in taxes, McCain demagogued the issue. He explained: “I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who need tax relief.” McCain denounced “the wealth gap in this country.” The usual suspects on the left couldn’t have said it better.

McCain has been better on spending, opposing the worst pork barrel projects, and more important, voting against such budget-busters as the Medicare drug benefit, 2002 farm legislation, and 2005 Highway Bill. But McCain’s record on entitlement reform, reports the Club, “is marred by his willingness to raise Social Security taxes as part of a package that would include personal accounts.”

Equally disappointing is McCain’s support for various regulatory measures. The Club cites “the Patients’ Bill of Rights, which he sponsored with Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and former trial lawyer John Edwards (D-NC),” which would have “allowed the government to impose a set of onerous mandates on insurance coverage instead of allowing individuals to make their own decisions about healthcare plans in the marketplace.”

Along with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, McCain has pushed expensive regulatory mandates in the name of combating global warming. Worse was McCain’s backing for Sarbanes-Oxley, which was passed in response to the Enron scandal; even many Democrats now acknowledge that the legislation has generated far more costs than benefits.

McCain also has pushed federal price controls for pharmaceuticals through Medicare and opposed even limited development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Moreover, McCain has backed the misguided Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (CAFE), which increase accident deaths by pushing people into smaller cars in the name of saving energy.

ON ECONOMICS, THEN, THE MCCAIN RECORD is disappointing. Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is McCain’s broad assault on fundamental liberties in other areas. Indeed, McCain’s most notable public crusade may be that against free speech.

Of course, McCain has undertaken this assault in the name of cleaning up politics. But the result is a full-scale war on political speech.

The McCain-Feingold legislation not only limited private contributions to campaigns, but banned independent political ads before elections. It is a direct assault on the core values of the First Amendment. So what, he asks? “I would rather have a clean government than one where quote First Amendment rights are being respected,” he explained last year.

McCain’s cavalier dismissal of free speech is particularly disturbing since his effort to “clean up” politics has had the primary impact of strengthening incumbents. Instead of allowing voters to decide what information is relevant and valuable, he believes that he should make that decision for everyone else.

Indeed, McCain’s argument is extraordinary: “these ads are almost always negative attack ads, and do little to further beneficial debate and healthy political dialogue” (which presumably is defined as singing the praises of senators running for reelection).

In his Supreme Court brief defending the legislation, McCain opined: “These ads are direct, blatant attacks on the candidates. We don’t think that’s right.” Of course. What incumbent believes “direct, blatant attacks” on his or her record are right? But since when should elected officials be able to limit criticism by others, especially shortly before an election?

THERE’S ALSO THE SPECTER of McCain taking “millions of dollars from the corrupting ‘special interests’ that he decries,” notes a new report by the Citizens United Political Victory Fund. The former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee has raised money from self-interested supplicants to fund his campaigns (remember S&L magnate Charles Keating) and his so-called “Reform Institute” (such as Cablevision). McCain’s Straight Talk America PAC also has sprinkled special interest money among political groups and GOP candidates. But what’s a little hypocrisy among friends?

McCain’s hostility to the basic right of free speech reflects an authoritarian core. That core also explains his choice of political models (the odious Theodore Roosevelt), and his positions on other issues.

For instance, McCain backs conscription and national service. There is no more expansive and extensive assertion of government authority. It is hard to imagine a greater opportunity for abuse than to turn the lives of millions of young people over to the federal government in the name of “service.”

Related is McCain’s view of government as national nanny. He has crusaded against the tobacco companies and pushed for “yet more vigor in fighting the War on Meth,” in the words of Matt Welch of Reason magazine. That misguided effort has made it harder for normal people to purchase common cold medicine.

McCain also has pushed for federal control over boxing and, even more bizarrely, steroid use by professional athletes. It might be stupid for athletes to use steroids. It might be important for professional sports leagues to ban drug use by their players. But why should this be a government, let alone national government, responsibility?

If there is a consistent thread to McCain’s positions, it is, says Welch, “an increase in the power of the federal government, particularly in the executive branch.” Great. We are suffering through eight years of increasing executive power in the name of conservatism under George W. Bush. All we need is another eight years of increasing executive power in the name of conservatism under John McCain.

As the Citizens United Political Victory Fund concludes: “John McCain is pandering to us, in the hope that we will minimize his past apostasy. But the apostasy isn’t just in the past–it’s in the very fiber of his character.”

Doug Bandow
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Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
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