Grand Old Mavericks?

If McCain wins, he could reshape the GOP. But he’s stuck with a lot of Bush’s baggage—and could end up confirming the neocon ascendancy.

No matter who wins the election on Tuesday-assuming there is a clear winner and no protracted legal battle-it's clear that both John McCain and Barack Obama are the most improbable candidates their respective parties could have nominated. Neither has run a political campaign that adheres to the old script. McCain hasn't resembled the polished Republican juggernauts of yore, but a true maverick, dependent on federal handouts to keep his campaign going and zooming all over the place as he seeks to establish a beachhead. Obama, by contrast, has been Mr. Corporate, overseeing a well-oiled machine that has seamlessly sewed up the nomination for him, and spurning federal financing as the donations flow in.

True to his warrior traditions, McCain is staging a desperate last stand. This could well be McCain's political Alamo. Should he lose the election, McCain will be reviled in the GOP for bringing his party down to defeat, perhaps even handing the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. No matter how clumsy McCain's campaign has been, however, he shouldn't be made the scapegoat. It's Bush, not McCain, who has so badly damaged the Republican brand, both in the spheres of foreign and economic policy, by overreaching, running ruinous deficits and engaging in a feckless war abroad. In the November 6 New York Review of Books, economist Benjamin M. Friedman points out that Christopher DeMuth, until recently the head of the American Enterprise Institute, observed in 2006 that "in recent years, with the Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress, domestic expenditures (even excluding post-9/11 ‘homeland security' spending) have been growing faster than during the previous two decades of divided government, and the incidence of pork-barrel projects has reached an all-time high." This is really quite astounding, something that would have been unthinkable for earlier generations of Republicans. And it is a development that hasn't escaped the attention of voters that Bush and the GOP were the biggest proponents of big government in the past decade, even bigger than their recent Democratic predecessors.

The other problem that the GOP has faced is that its old bag of campaign tricks doesn't appear to have functioned all that effectively absent a compelling campaign message. It has tried to tar Obama as a radical Muslim socialist, but the blows inflicted on Obama have merely been glancing ones. The National Review's Stanley Kurtz tried manfully, in the Wall Street Journal, to show that Obama actually had much closer ties to William Ayers than he has been willing to acknowledge, but Kurtz didn't close the sale. The evidence has been as murky as the accusations vehement. Ultimately, such charges probably can't substitute, no matter how much Sarah Palin tries to dent the Obama nimbus, for a sense of where McCain intends to take the economy.

Where McCain would take foreign policy, however, seems all too clear-all the way to Georgia. McCain's foreign-affairs message has been pretty clear. He would keep up the fight in Iraq and pursue a bellicose course against Russia. He would also seek to beef up the size of the American military, no matter what the cost.

Perhaps most tangibly, should McCain win the election, he will irrevocably shape the Republican Party. It wouldn't be rebuilding time for the GOP. Rather, it would be confirmation of the neoconservative hegemony over the GOP. More realists would undoubtedly decamp for the Democratic Party, if only because there wouldn't be a home for them in a McCain administration. William Kristol could crow that he had it right all along. Sarah Palin would be perfectly positioned to become the successor to McCain. As a social conservative and budding foreign-policy hawk, she is the perfect neocon candidate. Kristol and Elliott Abrams have since the 1990s argued that Jewish neocons need to reach out to pro-Israel evangelicals.

If Obama were to win, however, would it signal the counterrevolution? Not likely. Obama has signaled that one of his heroes is Ronald Reagan. Reagan, by and large, governed from the middle. Obama also has the memory of Bill and Hillary Clinton's first term, when this duo lurched out of control on healthcare and other issues. Obviously, Obama's biggest task would be to corral a Democratic House and Senate. But if he wins big, he will have a mandate to carry out his own policies. Key in this regard will be whom he selects as cabinet officials. He'll need to coopt Congress on both domestic and foreign policy. Senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense would be a smart choice. John Kerry as secretary of state wouldn't.

Republicans, in turn, would face a choice between moving further right, in the direction of Sarah Palin, nursing their grievances and portraying Obama as a usurper, or cooperating on some issues with Democrats. The example of the British Tories, who have prided themselves on doctrinal purity while remaining politically impotent, might be useful in this regard.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the election has been the defection of conservative intellectuals to the Obama camp. It seems that the last champions of McCain are former Democrats such as Charles Krauthammer, who served as a speechwriter for Walter Mondale in the Carter White House, while the "new neocons" are intellectuals shifting from the GOP to endorse Obama. The presidential race may end on Tuesday, but the ideological skirmishing that has accompanied it will not.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.