I'm not enthusiastic about either of the Republican presidential
frontrunners, but I am quite less enthusiastic about John McCain than George
W. Bush. With Dubya, we basically know what we are getting: The Republican
Same. Bush, like his father, is a country-club Republican who will neither
champion an activist liberal agenda nor overturn the decisive liberal
successes of the last 70 years. What Dubya will give us is a nice
president who will nicely preside over a nice liberal
democratic society. Bush is passionately committed -- as are all
establishment Republicans -- to the dispassionate "don't rock the boat"
John McCain, the allegedly maverick senator from Arizona, is a horse of a
different color. He has a reputation in the Senate for saying surprising
things and taking surprising positions. And treating everyone else
condescendingly while cussing a lot. There is a good explanation for this.
John McCain is a consummate moralist. As George Will pointed out in a
recent Newsweek column, it's not enough for McCain to distinguish his
position from Dubya's on such issues as abortion, tax cuts and campaign
finance "reform." He must always occupy the high moral ground, depicting
those who oppose his position as "corrupt." To McCain, almost everybody in
Washington is corrupt -- the politicians, the lobbyists, the congressional
staffers, and probably even the interns and waitresses and hairdressers.
Same goes for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Corrupt. Tobacco companies?
Corrupt. No honest disagreement permitted. The other guys are just plain
charlatans, thieves and liars.
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And I, John McCain, Mr. Clean with gray hair but sans earring, will
dutifully clean it all up.
The only thing worse than an immoralist is a moralist. Immoralists wear
their sin on their sleeve. You know pretty much where Hugh Hefner and
Charley Manson stand. Moralists, on the other hand, transform their sin
into a virtue on the basis of which they launch moral crusades. McCain's
support for murderous militaristic interventionism is a prime example. The
militaristic interventionists never have the guts to come out and say, for
instance, "We want to bomb and incinerate the Serbs -- including innocent
civilians -- in Kosovo, and all of you conservative non-interventionists had
better get out of our way." We would, at least, appreciate their candor if
they put it this plainly. No, they must at all costs assume the moral high
ground: "Our refined Western sensibilities cannot abide this thousand-year
squabbling in the Balkans. Refusal to support NATO's air strikes evidences
a cold-heartedness that does not befit true American patriots and a
democratic humanity." This, basically, was McCain's position during the
1999 war in Kosovo. Let it be remembered that he got on the airwaves
consistently chiding the Clinton administration for not being more
active in bombing people. He wrapped this militaristic interventionism in
the most fulsome expression of moral superiority.
The same is true of his much-vaunted program of campaign finance
"reform." What is its stated rationale? People shouldn't be permitted to
give lots of money to political candidates because it will "corrupt" them.
What the little moralistic dictator really means is, "I want to revoke
Americans' freedom to say and support what they want, and I will do this
under the guise of opposing 'corruption' in Washington." Well, can lots of
money corrupt politicians? Of course it can. So can senatorial privilege,
the Lincoln bedroom, CNN pollsters, campaign staffers, too many Sunday
morning TV appearances, and any book by John Kenneth Galbraith. The great
thing about big campaign contributions is that we can keep a close eye on
the extent to which they may corrupt the recipients. The problem with other
kinds of potential corruption -- like McCain's -- is that it is obscured by
high-sounding moral phrases.
Moralists who pose as reformers always frighten me. What they
usually want is the power of coercion to wage moral crusades. Power tends
to corrupt, Lord Acton wisely uttered, and absolute power corrupts
absolutely -- even, one might add, the power to reform. Politicians who
lust for "bully pulpits" to "clean up corruption" usually are interested in
replacing one form of corruption with another.
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The last thing we need is "strong, presidential leadership." Let's chain
the president to his explicitly enumerated Constitutional responsibilities
and suggest that, like Calvin Coolidge, he take a long nap every afternoon
so the country will be a little safer from tyranny emanating from the White
Better yet, let's pray that little moralistic dictators like McCain don't
get the chance to nap there at all.