John McCain: Not More of the Same

Give the Obama campaign this: They have message consistency. John McCain is "more of the same." He voted with George W. Bush "more than 90 percent of the time." He even admits to "[sharing] a common philosophy of the Republican Party" with Bush. Obama campaign allies have taken up the call with a single-mindedness not seen since Republicans discovered the political potency of summer footwear in the 2004 election. In one of the best-received lines at the Democratic Convention in Denver, Bob Casey, Jr. said, "John McCain calls himself a maverick, but he votes with George Bush 90 percent of the time. That's not a maverick. That's a sidekick." Paul Begala just released a book called Third Term: Why George W. Bush (Hearts) John McCain, and the Center for American Progress Action Fund partnered with Media Matters and Progressive Accountability to produce a documentary of the same name (full disclosure: I was interviewed for the health care portion of the film). It's been an impressive concentration of focus, particularly as compared to the McCain campaign, which has exhibited the attention span of a fruit fly.

At the same time, the “more of the same” rhetoric has muddied the actual choice facing the electorate. It's true, of course, that John McCain has wide areas of overlap with George W. Bush. It's true that he has voted with the president's priorities more than 90 percent of the time. But all this suggests more than it says. The Senate is an increasingly reactive body, voting "yes" or "no" on the priorities of the executive. As a commentary on past legislative performance, tallying those votes is good enough. As a predictor of future presidential leadership, it's a misleading measure at best. And so too with McCain. As president, McCain would be able to do more than voice "aye" or "nay" in response to Bush's initiatives; he'd be able to set the agenda, choose the priorities, frame the questions. And he wouldn't be more of the same. In some ways, he'd be much better. In others, he'd be far worse.

Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb…

Take McCain's strong suit: foreign policy. Here, John McCain is not a pale imitation of George W. Bush. George W. Bush was a pale imitation of John McCain. The Bush presidency eventually came to be synonymous with the rise of neoconservatism, but in 2000, Governor Bush was not the neocon’s favorite. Rather, neocons embraced his challenger, Senator McCain. It was McCain, after all, who had cosponsored the Iraq Liberation Act back in 1998, elevating "regime change" in Iraq to an official tenet of American foreign policy and pressuring the Clinton administration to fund Ahmed Chalabi's gang of merry dissidents. It was McCain, after all, who had carefully constructed a political narrative built around the honor of military sacrifice and the nobility of martial values. McCain was not only a more committed advocate for the neocon program, but by virtue of his political appeal and personal history, a more effective vessel. And so The Weekly Standard, the house magazine of neoconservatism, proudly endorsed him in 2000, arguing that McCain would save the Republican Party from its lurch towards religion by reconstructing it as a forthrightly nationalist institution.

Opinions change, of course, and you could imagine John McCain surveying the carnage wrought by neoconservative ideas over these last eight years and choosing to chart a more realist course in his own presidential campaign. But rather, the opposite has happened.

George W. Bush, for all his faults, eventually resigned himself to the failures of the neoconservative phase of his presidency, and elevated Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates to bring a renewed spirit of pragmatism to his foreign conduct. Under their leadership, America cut a deal with North Korea and opened an "interests section" in Iran -- the first step toward restoring diplomatic relations. The Bush administration has accepted the need for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and responded cautiously to the crisis in Georgia. Democrats frequently muse about retaining Gates as Defense Secretary after the election.

In response, McCain, taking advice from unreconstructed neoconservatives Robert Kagan and Randy Schuenemann, has fully inhabited his role as keeper of the flame, and with a strikingly dangerous twist. It's one thing to indulge neoconservative tendencies when the target is a small country like Iraq. But McCain has edged closer to an embrace of renewed Great Power competition, notably with China and Russia. He has called for ejecting Russia from the G8, or, at other times, expanding the organization to include India and Brazil but not China. He has advocated the creation of a "league of democracies" that would exclude China and Russia and be viewed by both as a threatening act. (This would be an accurate assessment of the situation, incidentally.) As Fareed Zakaria dryly noted in Newsweek, "We have spent months debating Barack Obama's suggestion that he might, under some circumstances, meet with Iranians and Venezuelans. It is a sign of what is wrong with the foreign-policy debate that this idea is treated as a revolution in U.S. policy while McCain's proposal has barely registered. What McCain has announced is momentous—that the United States should adopt a policy of active exclusion and hostility toward two major global powers."

This is likely a reflection of Robert Kagan’s influence. Kagan, who has been penning McCain's main foreign policy speeches, just published a book arguing that a "renewed great power competition is upon us." Indeed, McCain has been fairly forthright in echoing this analysis. When Russia attacked Georgia, McCain instantly declared that "we are all Georgians now." While White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "We urge restraint on all sides," McCain released a statement demanding that Russia "immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory." As Jonathan Martin remarked, it was "far tougher language than that from the Bush administration." But it wasn't tougher than Kagan, who had said "there is a competition going on, mostly spurred by Russia, for a sphere of influence, for instance in Georgia and Ukraine. I would hope that the next president would work hard with the allies to convince them that it's very important that NATO make a commitment to both Ukraine and Georgia." Yoking our military might to Georgia's conflict with Russia is a dangerous step, and one even the Bush administration has been unwilling to take. Had McCain been president, it's possible we'd be at war with Russia right now.


Whatever else Bush has been, he has not been a small-government conservative. A bad-government conservative, maybe. But not a small government conservative. And that was a very specific part of his appeal in 2000. After Newt Gingrich's efforts to radically shrink the government ended up sharply shrinking the Republican majority, the party was looking for a new type of conservative, a "compassionate conservative." George W. Bush offered that same great conservative taste, but with far fewer efforts to cut popular entitlement programs. He ran promising to preserve Social Security, add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, and expand federal control over the schools. When Republicans readied themselves to save some money by cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit, Bush made headlines for saying, "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor." Compassion, in political terms, had a whole lot to do with leaving the government's popular programs alone.

McCain, by contrast, has a more consistent record as a fiscal conservative. He has elevated a distaste for pork into a definitional issue and repeatedly voted in favor of sharp cuts to entitlement programs. But perhaps the most striking example of his economic philosophy came during the first presidential debate, when moderator Jim Lehrer asked what should be cut to fund the Wall Street bailout. McCain, who looked to be winging it, replied, "How about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs?" Lehrer, incredulous, repeated the proposal back at McCain: "Spending freeze?" McCain didn't blink. "I think we ought to seriously consider with the exceptions the caring of veterans, national defense, and several other vital issues."

Somewhere deep beneath the earth, John Maynard Keynes was spinning so quickly in his grave that we could have hooked a wind turbine to him and solved our energy crisis. A spending freeze? During a recession? Even the most casual interaction with basic economic principles suggests that during times of recession, government spending should increase in order to stimulate demand. "There's definitely a time for budget austerity and it definitely isn't now," says economist Jared Bernstein. "I don't think you could find an economist who would disagree with the idea that this is not the time to freeze spending."

As Bernstein implies, it is the timing of McCain's proposal that renders it such a radical idea. It's one thing to counsel fiscal restraint in normal economic times. It's rather another to call on government to pull back its spending at the same time that businesses have pulled back their spending and consumers have pulled back their spending. Robbing a sagging economy of all demand, both private and public, is a recipe for a catastrophe. "It's simply Hooveresque," continues Bernstein.

Indeed, there is something very near to consensus on this position. Larry Summers, the center-left economist who formerly served as Treasury Secretary, said, "Economic cooling is a much greater risk today than economic overheating. There is sufficient weakness in the economy now to justify stimulus legislation that will take effect as rapidly as possible." Ben Bernanke, the center-right economist who currently serves as Federal Reserve Chairman, took to the peculiar passive voice that Federal Reserve chairmen favor to declare that "with the economy likely to be weak for several quarters, and with some risk of a protracted slowdown, consideration of a fiscal package by Congress at this juncture seems appropriate." McCain did not back down from his position.

Warmer, Warmer …

Though McCain's idiosyncratic political philosophy often lands him to Bush's right, in a couple instances, he's ended up on Bush's left. In 2003, when Bush was still dithering about global warming and proposing voluntary action on the part of polluters, McCain, along with his friend Joe Lieberman, stepped in front of the issue and sponsored the first cap and trade bill to come before the Congress. The bill lost. They reintroduced it the following year. "McCain," says Michael Moynihan, director of NDN's Green Project program, "has been an early and consistent supporter of cap and trade legislation and that does put him in direct conflict with many members of the Bush administration."

This was a position of some bravery. It pitted McCain against many in his own party, in the business community, and in the fundraising community. The media loved it, of course, and it helped cement his reputation as a maverick, but did so on substantive grounds. What's odd, however, is that in recent years, and particularly over the course of this campaign, McCain has let this position languish. As the science on global warming firmed and the predictions darkened, McCain did not strengthen his legislation, or throw his considerable weight behind proportionate action. Rather by 2008, there was no McCain-Lieberman cap and trade bill. McCain had removed his name from the legislation, and been replaced by Virginia Senator John Warner. The bill was more ambitious, but McCain was absent. In fact, he opposed the legislation.

McCain has proposed a cap and trade plan of his own. He's even got an explanatory animation on his web site (that looks like it was programmed by the guys who built Pong). Many climate change experts argue with the details of McCain's plan -- in particular its acceptance of 100 percent offsets during the first few years -- but for the Republican Party, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Which makes the rest of his energy campaign rather weird. Fundamentally, McCain's support for cap and trade is important because it signals a basic understanding of global warming. Namely, we're emitting too much in the way of greenhouse gases. A major contributor is our reliance on fossil fuels. Such fuels are overused because they are underpriced, and they are underpriced because the price does not reflect the long-term costs of their environmental damage. Thus, say cap and trade advocates, we should make companies pay for carbon permits so their products will reflect the price of carbon. That will raise the price of fossil fuel-intensive activities, thereby discouraging their use. That's what cap and trade does. And there is no way to reconcile it with "drill, baby, drill!"

"Drill, baby, drill" complicates the picture of McCain's courage on global warming. Drilling more oil, of course, is a way to increase supply of fossil fuels, and thus lower their price (most studies conclude that we don't have enough oil to lower the price through drilling, but put that aside). It is a way, in other words, of encouraging people to burn more fossil fuels. It is the opposite of a cap and trade plan. And it raises the question of whether John McCain was being opportunistic then, is being opportunistic now, or simply doesn't really understand the policies he's advocating. Either you believe global warming a fundamental threat worth addressing, or you don't. But in McCain's platform, he currently believes global warming a fundamental threat worth addressing by raising fossil fuel prices, and high fossil fuel prices a fundamental threat worth addressing by lowering fossil fuel prices. It's deeply confused.

But even if the McCain agenda is deeply confused, it deserves to be evaluated on its own merits. Whatever the campaign slogans, Tuesday’s choice pits the particular ideology and governance philosophy of John McCain against that of Barack Obama. To subsume it beneath a referendum on George W. Bush does a certain violence to that decision. McCain, with his appetite for great power conflict, Neo-Hooverian economics, and recognition of global warming, is not George W. Bush. In some ways, he’s worse. In other ways, he’s better, But either way, John McCain is his own man, and we must be prepared for that.