How Right Is McCain?
February 19, 2008
John McCain will be the Republican Party's presidential candidate in November. Most Republicans certainly know who John McCain is, but there still seems to be a question as to just what he is. President Bush said last week that there was "no doubt in my mind he is a true conservative." But is he a Ronald Reagan conservative, or more like a Bob Dole moderate? Or is he like Dwight Eisenhower, who claimed in the 1952 nomination battle that he was "just as conservative" as his opponent, Sen. Robert Taft?
Mr. McCain's lifetime American Conservative Union rating is 82, compared with conservative Sen. Sam Brownback's 94, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's 90, and liberal Sen. Olympia Snowe's 50. So he is much more conservative than liberal; indeed Americans for Tax Reform rates him at 83, compared with Hillary Clinton's 7 and Barack Obama's 8.
We know he has a tough streak, saying that when he looked into Russian president Vladimir Putin's eyes he "saw three letters: a K, a G and a B," and we know he has a temper. When Mitt Romney said to McCain in one of their debates, "Don't turn the pharmaceutical companies into the big bad guys," Mr. McCain replied, "Well, they are." In the words of Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Mr. McCain "is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me."
* * *
So what are Mr. McCain's public policy beliefs? For starters, he would be America's most militarily experienced president since Ike. He piloted a Navy A-4 Skyhawk bomber in Vietnam, completing 22 missions before being shot down in 1967, captured, and often beaten during his five years of imprisonment. He believes in fighting terrorism to protect America. He intends "to win the war in Iraq" and views the Iraq debate as being over "whether we set a date for withdrawal, which will be a date for surrender, or whether we will let this surge continue and succeed." He will "make unmistakably clear to Iran that we will not permit a government that espouses the destruction of the state of Israel . . . and pledges undying enmity to the United States to possess the weapons to advance their malevolent ambitions."
Second, Mr. McCain is on the record as supportive of many conservative beliefs that are the opposite of liberal thinking. He will support the building of nuclear power plants to increase America's independent energy supplies. He is against Hillary Clinton's health-care program, including its individual mandate. And he is for individually owned Social Security accounts.
Mr. McCain is for school choice and competition--"That means charter schools, that means home schooling, it means vouchers"--and he voted for a bill to provide vouchers in the District of Columbia. In 2000 he said, "I would take the gas and oil, ethanol and sugar subsidies and take that money and put it into a test voucher program over three years to be used in every poor school district in every state in America."
He is for eliminating the alternative minimum tax and supports changing our tax system: "We have to reform the tax code. Nobody understands it. Nobody trusts it. Nobody believes in it. And we have to fix it."
He has supported free trade agreements, for "isolationism and protectionism doesn't work." He has a pro-life voting record, opposes partial-birth abortion and voted against allowing the Federal Marriage Amendment to come to the floor, while supporting state enactments of such amendment sif they choose. He believes the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to bear arms.
He favors a line-item veto for the president, which does not exist today, and has supported another very good spending idea: a constitutional amendment requiring a three-fifths vote of each house of Congress to raise taxes. Sixteen states have such a supermajority requirement, and McCain might add to his list a similar three-fifths vote to spend more than, say, 98% of the government's income.
And he has firmly stated that he is for appointing conservative Supreme Court justices, telling the Federalist Society he would "not only insist on persons who were faithful to the Constitution, but persons who had a record that demonstrated that fidelity."
On economic matters he believes "the first thing we need to do is stop the out-of-control spending." He has promised to eliminate the 10,000 or so earmark spending items (costing some $20 billion to $30 billion annually) that Congress adds to its other spending bills: "I will not sign a bill with any earmarks in it." That is a tough promise but a good start on fixing congressional overspending. In the Des Moines Register debate in Iowa last December, he said he would "eliminate subsidies on ethanol and other agricultural products. They are an impediment to competition. They are an impediment to free markets. And I believe subsidies are a mistake." Congress gives out nearly $3 billion in ethanol subsidies every year, and $15 billion to $20 billion in other farm subsidies, so this is a significant and positive policy change Mr. McCain is advocating.
Mr. McCain now supports making permanent the Bush income tax rate reductions because "I won't let a Democratic Congress raise your taxes and choke the growth of our economy." That is a significant improvement from his 2001 opposition to the Bush tax cuts, his 2004 opposition to making them permanent, and his sponsorship many years ago with Sen. Tom Daschle of legislation to eliminate tax reductions "tilted to the rich."
On the other side of the coin is Mr. McCain's most significant error: the McCain-Feingold legislation, which regulates what people and some organizations may say about federal candidates in the 60 days before an election. It is wrong thinking, wrong regulation, and in violation of the First Amendment. We need to know what Mr. McCain will do on this question if he becomes president; specifically, would he nominate judges--or Federal Election Committee members--who support the First Amendment?
* * *
Add it all together and John McCain is mostly conservative, but he is also much like Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt commanded the Rough Rider soldiers in the Spanish-American War. As president he was resolute, industrious and not particularly patient. He fought party bosses, sued to break up railroad trusts, was the "trustbuster" who launched 44 lawsuits against major corporations, gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to set rates, and led the fight to eliminate corporate election campaign contributions. He encouraged insurrection in Panama so he could build the canal, and built and sent around the world the Great White Fleet, the largest Navy America had ever had, to make clear to the world that we were leaders and meant business.
And Roosevelt's favorite saying was "Speak softly and carry a big stick," which sounds pretty much like the modern John McCain.