February 10, 2008

McCain, Yesterday's Man

After the American Century

As predicted in this Blog on 7 February, Obama won all three contests against Clinton yesterday. Taking Washington State, Nebraska, and Louisiana – all by wide margins – he has made the race even tighter. Without super delegate support, Hillary would now be behind. I will return to that race in my next Blog.

On the Republican side, the race is not quite over. Huckabee not only refuses to drop out, he won two contests yesterday. Compared to this evangelical Baptist minister with his extreme views, McCain can appear to be a centrist candidate. Indeed, a number of European newspapers are mistakenly reporting that Senator John McCain is a moderate. This is dangerous nonsense. McCain presents himself as a straight-talking maverick, and he refuses to embrace some of the issues of the rabid right. Huckabee would ban homosexual marriage, replace the Internal Revenue System with a flat tax, abolish abortion, and in general return to the United States of c. 1910, or perhaps 1880. Huckabee is so far to the right on these issues that he makes McCain look moderate by comparison. Furthermore, McCain does not want to deport all the illegal immigrants, but find a way for them to become lawful citizens. This is a sensible position. But forget about these issues. Realistically, there is little chance of the US adopting the flat tax, banning gay marriage, abolishing abortion, or evicting millions of illegal immigrants. This is the rhetorical grandstanding of the religious right that Reagan and Bush II would encourage in an election year and then pragmatically ignore afterwards.

But on other issues dear to the right wing, McCain is quite conservative. He would extend the so-called "Patriot Act" and continue the extensive use of wire-tapping. The NAACP gives him only a 7% rating on affirmative action. He believes that school prayer at the start of each day should be allowed, and also thinks religious symbols are acceptable in schools. He also has given strong support to the voucher system, which would undermine public education, and give state money to private (typically religious) schools. He strongly supports the death penalty, and would limit the number of appeals a prisoner can make, to speed up executions. Many of his Senate votes have tried to reduce the availability of abortion and cut funding for sex education. McCain can hardly be considered a moderate on any of these issues.

Likewise, to see the real McCain look at the war and the economy. He has voted for just about every free trade agreement, making him a strong proponent of economic globalization. He now wants to retain Bush's tax cuts for the rich, though he once voted against them. He is not about to put billions of dollars into welfare, and he would continue Bush's programs of pumping welfare aid through "faith based organizations" – in effect forcing the poor into the arms of the religious right. At times McCain has been a critic of the conduct of the Iraq war, but he has never been a critic of the war itself. To the contrary, McCain embraced the war from the beginning. He saw Saddam Hussein as "a threat of the first order," and he asserted that the UN program of weapon inspection had not worked. He voted to give Bush the power to go to war, and he championed the fallacious idea that a war would bring democracy to the Middle East. Two weeks before the invasion began, he declared that that the people of Iraq would welcome it as their liberation. [Speech to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2/13/03] 

While he had some differences with the Bush Administration over the conduct of the war, he embraced the neo-conservative idea that the invasion would "send the message throughout the Middle East that democracy can take hold in the Middle East." He also long supported Donald Rumsfeld. After the Abu Ghraib scandal he was asked if Rumsfeld should continue as secretary of defense. He replied, "I believe he's done a fine job. He's an honorable man." In Derry, New Hampshire Derry, (3 January 2008) McCain declared that the occupation of Iraq will continue, if necessary, for "100 years". McCain is an officer, however, and he has not always supported the veterans as much as the Administration. In 2006 he was one of 13 senators who voted against appropriating $430 million for inpatient and outpatient veteran care.

If McCain becomes president, the world can expect a leader who seeks military solutions to political problems, even those rooted in religious differences. His worldview is mostly black and white, with few shades of gray. Born in the middle of the 1920s, he came to adulthood during World War II and the McCarthy years. He embraced the military at the height of the Cold War. This Manichean worldview was further hardened when he was held as a prisoner of war during Vietnam. To his credit, this experience also made him a forceful critic of the Bush Administration's use of secret prisons and torture.

If McCain has been shaped by the military, at least it is a proud and principles military tradition. His grandfather, his father, and his son, like McCain himself, all attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis. For two reasons it is rare in the United States for four generations in a single family to send a son there. First, it is just as difficult to get into that elite school as it is to go to the army's West Point. Second, it is rare for one family to have sons for that many generations who want to go. This puts McCain in the super-patriot class of true believers in the United States. Attending Annapolis is like going to boot camp for four years, followed immediately by an obligatory four years of military service. Each graduate begins as a junior officer, and a preponderance of the generals and admirals come from West Point and Annapolis. Electing McCain would put the military establishment in the West House. He would raise military pay and appropriate more money to defense, while at the same time closing some bases to rationalize the use of funds.

Huckabee would go back a century, while McCain would go back "only" fifty years. Such a leader is more appropriate to the either/or psychology of Cold War than to the complexities of today's world. But he is ill suited to world where the US will decline as the world's most powerful nation, both economically and militarily. In the next twenty years, China and India each will rival or surpass the American economy in size. Even now, the Bush legacy is a weak economy, a weak dollar, and a huge imbalance of payments. As the global balance of power shifts, the United States will be best served by a leader who can maximize what Harvard's Professor Joseph Nye has called "soft power." The go-it-alone arrogance of the Bush years has eroded that soft power, which builds upon international respect for a nation's values, behavior, and culture.

During the Bush Administration the rest of the world instead has endured lies, bluster, arrogance, and ignorance. Recall Rumsfeld's nasty remarks about "old Europe," or Powell's speech at the United Nations, which turned out to be full of misinformation and lies. Recall Bush's refusal to sign many international treaties, notably that banning line mines. Recall the hubris of the neo-conservatives, certain that Iraq would quickly become a model democracy. Remember that for years Bush refused to believe global warming even existed, and tried to silence government scientists who disagreed. The Bush team has damaged the nation's credibility.

The next president needs to restore faith in the good intentions and the honesty of the United States, primarily by exercising soft power and serving as a useful leader. McCain might well be a more effective commander in chief, and let us assume he would be honest. But he will always be yesterday's man.