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John McCain and the media have had a minor hissy fit over Dubya’s
use, or the theoretically independent use by Dubya’s friends and allies,
of “issue ads” against McCain, especially in the New York primary. I
have nothing against issue ads in general. Indeed, I’d like to see the
campaign laws liberalized so that, aside from full and immediate
disclosure enforced by reasonably reliable sanctions, the government
would have no more control over political contributions and
expenditures. (I used to think the political process was supposed to
tell the government what to do rather than the government controlling
the political process, silly me.)

What has received little attention and deserves more, however, is the
content of the ads, especially the “clean air” and breast cancer ads.
They may simply reflect the fact that in our political culture it is
easier in a short sound bite to accuse somebody of being nasty and cruel
because he voted against something warm and fuzzy. But the underlying
premise behind such an accusation is that the way to express compassion
or to help people is to create — or at least vote for — a government
program.

There was a time when I would have thought that was an extremely
unusual position for a Republican — any Republican, even a so-called
moderate — to build a campaign or a career around. But I don’t know
anymore.

Let’s take the pollution ads first. The ads, paid for by Bush’s
billionaire buddy Sam Wyly under the name of “Republicans for Clean
Air,” tut-tutted that “McCain voted against solar and renewable energy,”
whereas the noble Mr. Bush’s “clean air laws will reduce pollution more
than a quarter million tons a year.”

Intellectually, such an ad buys into the liberal position on
environmentalism completely. But anybody who has studied them closely
knows that almost all the solar and renewable energy programs the
federal government has financed are either complete boondoggles or
programs from which a few politically savvy companies or individuals get
big subsidies or contracts, with the effect on clean air being nil or
negative.

Further, the programs McCain voted against (as he bragged on his
website) were what the Council Against Government Waste classifies as
pure pork barrel — programs that were not requested by the profligate
agencies but added during congressional horse-trading, without any
hearings, to benefit a particular congressional district or company.
From a Republican perspective (at least for those of us who are older
and remember when Republicans pretended to have something resembling
small-government principles) such a vote should be viewed as courageous
and commendable.

The same applies to the breast cancer ads. The subsidies McCain voted
against — the Bush people acknowledge they got the information from
McCain’s website, where he bragged about them — were pure pork barrel
by the CAGW’s definition. Perhaps they were worthy (if any program is
worthy of a government subsidy), but the appropriations were made in a
way every independent observer acknowledges is corrupt and lamentable,
feeding the inertia of bigger government

There are valid criticisms to be made of Sen. McCain. But voting
against pork barrel projects shouldn’t be one of them — at least not by
a candidate who claims to have a residual conservative bone or two in
his body.

I don’t know whether it’s more troubling or just as troubling that
Sen. McCain himself didn’t choose to say any of this in response to the
attack ads. You might think it would have been fairly simple for him to
say, “Look, I’ve said I’m a Reagan Republican and I’ve shown it by
crusading against wasteful pork barrel spending. Now I find a Republican
who calls himself a ‘compassionate conservative’ running attack ads
against me for opposing wasteful spending. I’m baffled and saddened –
and I think it shows a tolerance for or even approval of wasteful
government spending that troubles me and should trouble all
right-thinking Republicans.”

But McCain didn’t take that approach. Instead, he identified the Wyly
brothers as the money behind the ads and fumed and sputtered that it was
“dirty money” coming from the class of Texas millionaires to whom Bush
as governor has given 81 pollution waivers that “have made the state of
Texas the worst violator of clean air in America.” As if the only
conceivable approach to environmental problems is strict government
regulation with no waivers or exceptions. It’s the kind of approach and
rhetoric one might expect to hear from Ralph Nader or some green lobby
rather than from a purportedly conservative Republican.

I understand, to some extent. In a campaign, politicians do what they
think will work. And when you’re dealing in 30-second ads and sound
bites, sometimes a short accusation to the effect that the other side is
mean because it won’t support some supposedly compassionate program can
be an effective way to score a quick point. The ability to equate
compassion with a government program, leaving the other side with the
usually more complex task of explaining that the program isn’t
compassionate at all, that it doesn’t work, or that it constitutes a
drag on economic growth and the development of technology that are a
more effective way to solve pollution problems, has been an important
key to the success of the liberal/statist enterprise in this country.

But here you had the two remaining Republican candidates with a
realistic chance of winning, battling it out by endorsing, in essence
(whether consciously or not), the intellectual underpinnings of the
behemoth state. That’s a tribute to the statists’ ability to control the
culture and define the words and concepts that come with halos. But if
that’s how two Republicans campaign in a Republican primary — not even
a general election — how likely is either of them to enter office with
a firm commitment to cutting or even slowing down the growth of
government?

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