Friday, February 01, 2008

McCain as Modern Day TR

When he first ran for President in 2000, John McCain overtly compared himself to Teddy Roosevelt. And in that pre-9/11 world, at the "end of history," that comparison seemed to make a lot of sense. For instance, National Review's Rich Lowry wrote about how some believed that the 1990's and 1890's were comparable--particularly The Weekly Standard's David Brooks and William Kristol-- and that, like TR in the Gilded Age, the new millennium may be a fortuitous time for an iconoclast president with a desire to begin initiatives aimed at recapturing a sense of "national greatness". (Lowry believed there was no such need for that at the time. In short, it was time for an manager president--a la Harding--since there was no major event or crisis on hand. If only.)

This time around, McCain hasn't evoked the ghost of TR quite as much, but I think the comparison is still apt. Conservatives, liberals and libertarian's all seem to agree.

Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore in November 2005:
Throughout our chat he has referred to Theodore Roosevelt in almost reverential terms and glows when I ask about him. He calls TR "my hero . . . and one of our greatest presidents," and at one point he excitedly searches through his briefcase and pulls out a book that he is reading on the famously tumultuous election of 1912. That was when TR bolted from the Republican Party (which Mr. McCain concedes was "a mistake") and formed the Bull Moose Party to dethrone William Taft. When I mention TR's trust-busting (which was mostly counterproductive economically), Mr. McCain really comes to life, exultantly points his finger in the air, smiles and cries out: "He called the trusts 'the malefactors of wealth.' "

And in this very moment it becomes clear to me that John McCain aspires to be a modern-day TR. The similarities are unmistakable: Both were war heroes, mavericks within their own party, reformers and defenders of the little guy.

But here in a nutshell lies the danger of the McCain view of the world. Where some see the vast virtue of entrepreneurial wealth-generators and job-producers, he too often sees "robber barons." He seems forever in search of the next Joe Camel, Charles Keating, Ken Lay or Jose Canseco (Mr. McCain has been a prominent crusader against steroids in baseball).

Slate's Jacob Weisberg:

McCain was not always the moderate, tolerant character I'm describing. He was a conservative before he was a liberal before he became a conservative again. McCain began his political career in the 1980s as an untroubled Reagan Republican. His outlook changed drastically, however, after he nearly went down in the Keating Five scandal, for which he blamed both himself and the money-politics system. In the early 1990s, McCain caught the reform bug and became the Senate's foremost advocate of campaign finance reform, as well as an outspoken opponent of corporate welfare and pork-barrel spending. His reform zeal opened the door to other heresies and formed the basis for his presidential run. Part of what was compelling about McCain as a candidate in the 2000 primaries was that he was a politician in genuine flux. On the campaign trail, you could see him losing faith in conservative orthodoxy on issues like poverty, income inequality, health care, and global warming, spurred by encounters with humans in New Hampshire and elsewhere.

This political evolution continued through Bush's first term. McCain rejected the president's fiscal recklessness and tax cuts skewed to the wealthy. He allied himself with Democratic colleagues on a variety of social issues, including HMO reform, environmentalism, and gun control. Democrats implored him to switch teams, as a couple of his advisers, frozen out by the right, actually did. But instead of accepting John Kerry's offer to become his running mate in 2004, McCain embraced Bush's re-election effort, and his searching phase largely came to an end. Since the president's second term began, McCain has been uncharacteristically calculating, building bridges to Bush and the evangelicals and choosing his battles far more selectively. But if you watch closely, you still catch plenty of signals that the old new McCain isn't dead, just hiding out. He continues to take on the president and his own party where it matters to him, on the use of torture in the war on terrorism and on immigration, where he sponsored a bill with Ted Kennedy to allow millions of illegal immigrants become citizens.

I'm not arguing that McCain is a liberal Trojan horse running in the wrong party. If you need to label him, he's a Teddy Roosevelt progressive—militant, crusading, reformist, and hostile to concentrated power. The Bull Moose has temporarily turned into a performing elephant. But the Moose will be back—around March 2008, if everything goes according to plan.

And Reason's Matt Welch:
McCain regards Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as political idols; like them, he never hesitates in asserting that government power should be used to rekindle American (and Republican) pride in government. Unlike most neoconservative intellectuals, however, McCain is intimately familiar with the bluntest edge of state-sponsored force. A McCain presidency would put legislative flesh on David Brooks’ fuzzy pre-9/11 notions of “grand aspiration,” deploying a virtuous federal bureaucracy to purify unclean private transactions from the boardroom to the bedroom. And it would prosecute the nation’s post-9/11 wars with a militaristic zeal this country hasn’t seen in generations.

And some think we have an "imperial president" now? What will a McCain (or Clinton, part deux) bring?

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