Does John McCain Stand for Anything?

If the Republicans wanted a nominee this year who personified the brain death of their party, they couldn't have picked a better one than John McCain. Ideas have never been the Arizona senator's strong suit, even when the conservative tide was surging. McCain's calling card has always been his biography, as those who run his campaign and craft his ads know well.

The one issue that McCain has always cared about is the honor of the American military, as he defines it. Leaving Iraq would dishonor those soldiers who fought and died there. Torturing our enemies would dishonor those soldiers as well. McCain comes from a military family and has always had to live up to the code of his father and grandfather, for whom military service was both a way of life and the highest form of patriotism. On other matters, his ideas amount to so much boilerplate, to the received truths of the conservative mainstream that he is recycling in this year's campaign, no matter their relevance to American's current state.

Consider his economic platform. McCain proposes making George W. Bush's massive cat tax cuts for the rich permanent and cutting corporate tax rates by 10 percent -- proposals which, if enacted, would increase our budget deficit by a cool $2 trillion to $3 trillion over the next decade. To fix the faltering economy, he proposes a summer suspension of the gas tax -- a $50 to $100 one-time seasonal tax reduction in the face of rising costs and stagnant incomes. The only economic issue that has engaged McCain's interest is congressional earmarks, which total, by his measure, roughly $18 billion in a $14 trillion economy (less than 1 percent). His crusade against earmarks then really isn't an economic issue at all; it is merely a way the politically astute McCain distinguishes himself from his ostensibly more political colleagues.

McCain has never shown much passion for or interest in economic or social causes. His default position is conventionally conservative on issue after issue, and there's no reason to believe a McCain presidency would take another course.

This week, the Prospect takes an in-depth look at McCain on the issues -- the ones he cares about (staying in Iraq and taking the war to our other alleged adversaries) and the ones on which he recycles hoary Republican verities. Matt Yglesias, in our May issue cover story issue, documents how McCain is more of a neocon than Bush. Robert Gordon dissects McCain's tax demagoguery, while Ezra Klein looks at McCain's peculiar plans to reform health care by dismantling health coverage. Kate Sheppard separates hype from fact in McCain's environmental record, and Dana Goldstein has to go back to McCain's 2000 campaign for president to even find a McCain platform on education.

Sincerely believed or lightly held, McCain's positions remain our best guide to a McCain presidency. He can run on biography but he can't govern on it. Here's what John McCain will do if elected.

Ideas have never been the Arizona senator's strong suit, even when the conservative tide was surging. McCain's calling card has always been his biography, and his platform is built on received conservative truths.

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