Deconstructing McCain

February 4, 2008 Topic: Security Tags: Tax

Deconstructing McCain

Presidential candidate John McCain is now being lauded for his “independence” on domestic issues and “toughness” on foreign policy. But would he really make a good commander in chief?


Given his rise, fall, then rise again in this primary season alone, Senator John McCain is naturally attracting a great deal of media attention. Much of the focus-including of a New York Times front-page article Friday-has been on whether the senator and three-time contester for the Republican nomination has the necessary conservative "street cred" among red-meat party members to win this year's primary contest. While such issues undoubtedly loom large this primary season, McCain's record is newsworthy not only relative to those of his Republican challengers, but also on its own.

While the senator from Arizona has demonstrated his independence and commitment to some issues of broad significance-even when party pressure was brought to bear-on others he has been less consistent, and has even mischaracterized his earlier positions. The same charge could easily be made of McCain's main Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, and may therefore be less politically significant in the primary race. In a general election, though, the senator's changing positions on other important issues-ranging from the strategic to the fiscal-will be scrutinized closely. In addition, some of the senator's positions seem to be in conflict with each other, and he has yet to acknowledge such conflicts or specify how he might reconcile them.


McCain has earned a reputation as a maverick and independent thinker due to his support of legislation on the environment, banning the use of torture on detainees, granting amnesty to illegal immigrants, and reforming campaign finance laws and opposing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. That would leave him well poised to win over the much-coveted moderate and independent voters in a general election, should he win his party's nomination. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cited such initiative in endorsing McCain. "There are people out there that talk about reaching across the aisle, but [McCain] has shown the action over and over again," he said. McCain has also distinguished himself through his honorable service, involving much sacrifice, to his country during the Vietnam War.

Some of the senator's pronouncements and positions, though, contrast markedly with his own previous stances. Like other vigorous advocates of the Iraq War, McCain has laid claim to a felicitous position, promoting even President Bush's ongoing surge strategy, but also sharply criticizing the way the war has been prosecuted. McCain clearly sees his support for the war as a selling point in the primaries, and has contrasted his record with what he described as Romney's alleged support for a timetable-withdrawal from Iraq, a position Romney has strenuously denied he has taken.

At the same time, McCain would often lambaste former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the war. The public record clearly shows, though, that while McCain began asking for more troops in Iraq when the U.S. mission there began seriously faltering, early on McCain made similar strategic miscalculations on Iraq, and did not demonstrate any remarkable prescience in noting the kind of difficulties the United States could encounter there. During an interview with Chris Matthews on Hardball on March 24, 2003, McCain echoed the administration's talking points, saying "there's no doubt in my mind, once these people are gone, that we will be welcomed as liberators."

In the run-up to the war, as a member of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee McCain did not support other prominent national security experts, such as General Brent Scowcroft and General Anthony Zinni, who did demonstrate such foresight and independence, making strong public statements about the challenges America would face. And he did not back then-Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki when on February 25, 2003, he risked his job by warning the Senate Armed Services Committee that several hundred thousand soldiers were needed for the mission in Iraq, an assessment that Rumsfeld publicly disagreed with.

Indeed, McCain subscribed to the Rumsfeldian view that advanced U.S. technology mitigated the need for large numbers of ground forces, even for the kind of urban warfare U.S. troops would encounter in Iraq. "Our technology, particularly air-to-ground technology, is vastly improved," McCain told CNN's Larry King on Dec. 9, 2002. "I don't think you're going to have to see the scale of numbers of troops that we saw, nor the length of the buildup, obviously, that we had back in 1991."

On Iran and its nuclear program, McCain has been so flippantly bellicose-singing "Bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran" to the Beach Boys tune-that some conservatives have warned that a President McCain would take America to war with Iran. McCain last Sunday said: "There's going to be other wars. . . . I'm sorry to tell you, there's going to be other wars. We will never surrender but there will be other wars." Presumably, McCain was suggesting his view that a war with Iran was inevitable. When asked by Joe Scarborough about McCain's statement, Pat Buchanan replied: "That is straight talk. . . . You get John McCain in the White House, and I do believe we will be at war with Iran." Buchanan said, "That's one of the things that makes me very nervous about him," adding, "There's no doubt John McCain is going to be a war president. . . . His whole career is wrapped up in the military, national security. He's in Putin's face, he's threatening the Iranians, we're going to be in Iraq a hundred years." But if McCain's strategic vision is to strike Iran militarily, he has not explained how that might be achieved without further endangering the already failing U.S. mission next door in Iraq, which he also believes in continuing without a timetable.

And any attempt by a President McCain to address Iran's nuclear program through diplomacy, particularly at the UN Security Council, would be undermined by McCain's almost gratuitous aggressiveness toward Moscow. When the administration was trying to reach an understanding with the Kremlin on missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, McCain undermined the talks by saying "the first thing I would do is make sure that we have a missile defense system in place in Czechoslovakia and Poland, and I don't care what his [Putin's] objections are to it." McCain has also similarly called for Russia's expulsion from the Group of Eight. While Washington should address mounting concerns about Russian domestic issues with Moscow, McCain's stance has been so uncompromising and confrontational that as president he would fatally undermine any effort to rally consensus at the Council on Iran and other matters.

On taxes-a pivotal issue for a Republican candidate contesting his party's nomination-McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts twice but now is curiously claiming that as president he would make those cuts permanent. In 2001, McCain said, "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."

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and generally considered the party's watchdog on matters fiscal, said in an interview that he is not bothered by the senator's varying positions on taxes. "I'm more interested in where [the candidates] are going, than where they've been." Norquist did see, though, a looming tension with McCain's stated commitment to fiscal prudence and his advocacy of building a larger military. For every dollar that Congress provides to increase the size of the military, Norquist said, it demands two for social spending. Norquist said that he is, therefore, generally concerned about "any effort to dramatically expand defense spending."

Finally, McCain, like all other Republican contesters, has cast himself in Reagan's image-an image that Republican candidates have virtually genuflected before this primary race, with no sober recognition of the kind of flaws and missteps that are part of any administration's history. McCain said he has been a "foot soldier in Reagan's Revolution." While McCain has exhibited personal charisma, it is difficult to point to other far-reaching similitude, either of temperament or in the policy arena, to the late president. During the Reagan administration, America advanced its geopolitical interests by supporting and arming (sometimes through circuitous, and unlawful, routes) U.S.-aligned proxies abroad. When he did deploy U.S. troops-such as to Granada-Reagan selected targets that could be swiftly and decisively defeated militarily. And while Reagan did use muscular rhetoric, he could also be conciliatory and his public pronouncements were calibrated and scripted. McCain seems more impulsive in his statements, antagonizing other parties when it was not in the national interest to do so. And finally, as Michael Kinsley pointed out in his column Friday, Reagan was willing to "cut and run" from a military mission when he felt such action would better serve the nation, as evidenced by his withdrawal of troops from Lebanon in 1984.

McCain's "fire in the belly" has driven him to confront his party's establishment and stake out independent positions, for which he has gained considerable notoriety-perhaps enough to ultimately win the presidency. That same temperament has also prompted McCain to be overly aggressive, both in rhetoric and in the policies he supports. And as a politician, McCain may be part maverick, but he is also in equal parts a conforming pragmatist-willing to cut and run from his previous positions when it served his personal interests.