DEFINING JOHN MCCAIN. In yesterday's LA Times, Jonathan Chait offers up a more convincing and sober-minded version of Jacob Weisberg's recent argument that John McCain really isn't a conservative and he's just doing a little necessary pandering.

My Big Correct Debate-Changing Observation about this is that the disagreements here are less about McCain than they are about liberalism. For people who were fairly satisfied with the policy outputs of the late Clinton era -- balanced budgets, strong GDP growth, reality-based environmental policies, etc. -- McCain's views on economics are going to look a lot better than standard Republicanism. If, on the other hand, you want to see dramatic health care reform, big improvements in public services, and a serious effort to curb economic inequality, then Bush's differences with McCain look relatively trivial. Again, some liberals think the problem with Bush's foreign policy has been bad management which McCain, perhaps, is well-suited to address. Others think the problem with Bush's foreign policy has been the fundamenal unsoundness of the "rogue state rollback" concept that, since it was stolen from McCain in the first place, McCain is unlikely to improve.

Now, even if you share the leftier views on both of those questions, I think you ought to concede that McCain really is less pernicious than the median Republican. But on the other hand, we have a strong interest in not conceding that. One important thing in American politics is the always-contested definition of the "center." A political dynamic where "right" means "giant tax cuts" (Bush), while "center" means "smaller tax cuts and bigger spending cuts" (McCain), is a country where no progress is ever going to be made on implementing my policy preferences. Similarly, if one lets the foreign policy "center" be defined as "invade lots of countries that haven't attacked the United States but make sure to do it with a giant invading army" then we're never going to have a decent foreign policy in this country.

But while it's bad for McCain to be widely praised as a "moderate," it would be good for McCain to win the Republican nomination. The former steps gives a conservative cast to the definition of "center," but the latter would give a relatively moderate cast to the definition of "right."

--Matthew Yglesias

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