Friday, July 11, 2008

The Progressive Case for John McCain

(circa September 2007, when it looked like the GOP was going to nominate either Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani and the thought of John McCain sitting in the Oval Office was relatively less conducive to me shitting my pants)

If you have spent more than 30 seconds in my presence, you probably know that I am 1) obsessed with politics, and 2) very, very liberal. This is my third semester as President of the Amherst College Democrats, and I spent last summer working for my Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. And I believe that John McCain has the potential to make an excellent President.

My initial response to the man is quite inexplicable. At the utterance of his name, I feel like Frank Sinatra’s character in The Manchurian Candidate, as though I have been brainwashed into believing that “John McCain is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known.” After reading his memoirs about serving as a Navy pilot in Vietnam and spending five years as a prisoner of war, I too am impressed by this man’s acts of courage.

But when it comes to candidates, it is policy and not personality that truly matters. And John McCain is a very conservative Republican. He was first elected as Arizona’s Senator by promising to continue the legacy of his predecessor: Barry Goldwater, the very founder of the modern conservative movement. However, this school of thought is very different from the Christian fundamentalism and crony capitalism which defines the current administration. McCain’s mode of conservatism is predicated on the rule of law, economic prudence, and competent management of the American Empire.

A John McCain presidency should not frighten liberals, for assuming that the makeup of Congress does not change, whoever sits in the Oval Office in 2009 will see bills on their desk written by Democratic committee chairs. If there were to be a government divided with a very progressive Congress and an open-minded Republican President, we can expect a flurry of enormous legislative accomplishments.

The best example is what McCain would do in regards to global warming. He has coauthored legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and if given the opportunity, would use the most powerful office in the world to take on this daunting endeavor. Only the rare individual like John McCain could establish the notion that preserving the polar ice caps is an inherently conservative end and vital for our national security. With the clock ticking towards the point of no return, it might thus be in the global interest for McCain to be our next President.

In the realm of economics, an analogy can be made that John McCain is to George W. Bush as Theodore Roosevelt was to William McKinley. Whereas Bush has ascribed to any policy desired by his campaign financiers, McCain has campaigned to end corporate welfare as we know it. He voted against subsidies to the oil companies and to the pharmaceutical companies. Indeed, McCain’s conception of free markets includes the correction of market failures, having advocated stricter regulation of the auto industry, the accounting industry, the tobacco industry, even the campaign finance industry. Indeed, he is a small-government Republican, but a McCain administration could very well revive the long-dormant spirit of Progressive Republicanism.

John McCain is a social conservative, but he adheres to the authority of binding precedent more than the fatwas of the Reverends Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Particularly after the South Carolina primary in 2000, in which the Bush campaign made an issue out of the color of his daughter’s skin, McCain is openly hostile to the culture warriors of his party whom he has labeled as “agents of intolerance.” McCain is pro-life, but supports federally-financed stem cell research. He opposes same-sex marriage, but he also opposes banning it with a constitutional amendment, which he described “as antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans.” On illegal immigration, he is one of the primary champions of allowing illegal aliens to become full citizens. Altogether, his positions are sufficiently to the right in order to pass his party’s ideological litmus test, and in some instances he is quite liberal.

Any liberal optimism for John McCain is tempered, however, by his stance on the single most important question which faces the American nation today: the war in Iraq. He does not march in lockstep with the Bush administration, having distanced himself from its treatment of detainees, but McCain is nevertheless accused to be a facilitator of the larger, failing mission. This accusation is well founded, for he still argues that the war can be won with sufficient reinforcements; the so-called McCain Doctrine of escalation.

It seems strange that the former straight-talker would take this occasion to deny perceptible reality, but the about-face signals the dilemma which all Republicans face in 2008. The next presidential election is sure to be all but defined by the war in Iraq, and this enormously unpopular undertaking has lost the backing of all but the most dogmatic members of the Grand Old Party. Anyone who wants to receive the party’s nomination must win over the increasingly-dwindling voters who wish to stay the course, and so every single Republican candidate, McCain included, now has to kowtow to what is but a peripheral element of the general electorate.

My prediction is that once the primaries have been decided, John McCain is going to reestablish himself as the straight-talking centrist reformer who we saw in 2000. If Candidate McCain chooses a likeminded moderate like Rudy Giuliani as his running-mate, the result will be a Republican administration which could implement an agenda with broad-based popular support. And just as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps John McCain can then extricate the United States from Iraq.

There is more at stake in the next election than party and personality, and even this loyal Democrat has respect for the virtues of conservatism. As a young idealist considering a career in public service, in fact, I would be proud to work under the leadership of a President McCain.

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