Tuesday, February 05, 2008

War Is The Only Force that Gives Him Meaning

Matt Yglesias recently linked to an interesting bit of analysis from Yuval Levin on the political passions of John McCain. Levin has this to say of McCain's apparent lack of zeal when advocating the various GOP domestic causes:

On domestic issues, McCain’s problem is not that his views are too far from the public’s. It’s that he simply doesn’t care about any of the issues on the table. In fact...McCain doesn’t actually seem to care about any political “issues” at all.

Levin claims that the problem for McCain is that he views the world through the "honor, duty, country" lens and, as such, isn't inspired by domestic issues that aren't easily recognizable via this paradigm. Ross Douthat agrees:

...the Arizona Senator can seem almost physically uncomfortable with any policy argument that isn't framed in the sort of "honor, duty, country" terms that Yuval describes.

While I think that Levin and Douthat are correct that McCain shows an unsettling lack of interest in "domestic" issues, I believe that both are overly generous in their attribution of the problem to some overriding dedication to "honor, duty, country" - or, at least, that neither probes the parameters of McCain's conception thereof. It is true that McCain, almost alone amongst GOP legislators, has shown a willingness to question the use of torture in interrogations (though not that loudly, or with that much legislative follow through). In that, one could make a plausible case that he believes that torture tarnishes America's honor, and that he thus places "honor, duty, country" above partisan politics (at least rhetorically, and with some minor, largely ineffectual legislative maneuvering).

This is true in so far as it goes, and there are other examples of soft-pedalry that could be cited to craft a charitable version of McCain's worldview. But if one looks to what really animates McCain, where he is most forceful, outspoken and determined - where he doesn't eventually back down as with torture - there emerges again and again a common theme: War.

Justin Logan does a good job of highlighting a portion of the relevant record, a pattern of policy preference that, although frequently communicated via straight talk, doesn't seem to get through to many voters and pundits:

In the New Hampshire primary, exit polls revealed that 38 percent of those voting in the Republican primary who “strongly disapprove” of the war in Iraq cast their ballot for John McCain. In Michigan, 35 percent of those strongly disapproving of the war cast their ballots for him. Somehow, McCain’s repeated indications that he would be more favorably inclined toward war than the current president haven’t broken through the fog of media adulation that surrounds the Arizona senator.

One of the first, most striking indications was McCain’s serenading an audience in South Carolina last April with a rendition of the Beach Boys’ song “Barbara Ann” with the lyrics changed to “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” His campaign spokesman later spun the outburst as “adding levity to the discussion,” but his campaign kept up the theme, playing the real “Barbara Ann” at subsequent appearances...

Before the New Hampshire primary, McCain was at it again. Speaking to an audience in New Hampshire on January 3, one questioner remarked with concern that the current president has spoken about staying in Iraq for 50 years...Before the man had a chance to finish his question, McCain interrupted him, blurting out “make it 100 [years]! … That would be fine with me!”

It was a stunning, candid admission. If elected, McCain acknowledges that his policies would help ensure that when our grandchildren sign up for military service, some of them will deploy to Iraq. More broadly than Iraq, Senator McCain has a clear track record of supporting war and militarism, and if elected, there’s every reason–from his twitchy statements on the campaign trail to his actions in Congress–to believe that Senator McCain is the all-war-all-the-time candidate.

In the past decade, Senator McCain has supported unsheathing the saber against a variety of enemies from Serbia to Iraq, Iran, and Sudan. And in the present, as Matt Welch writes in his new book The Myth of a Maverick, the senator from Arizona “envisions a more militaristic foreign policy than any U.S. president in a century.”

In fact, Senator McCain has indicated that not only would he like to unleash the U.S. military on substantial portions of the rest of the world, as president, he would work to militarize American society...

But give Senator McCain credit: he isn’t falsely marketing a “humble” foreign policy on the campaign trail. To the contrary, when voters go to the polls, there will be plenty of information available to indicate that a vote for McCain is a vote for perpetual war and occupation...

Suffice it to say, for many Americans the notions of "honor, duty, country" mean different things. Therefore, it is better to be more specific about how to translate such pleasant sounding euphemisms when put in the mouths of various candidates, pundits and voters. It's not just that McCain's interest isn't piqued by domestic issues, it's that his foreign policy instincts are similarly narrow and circumscribed.

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