Mark Schmitt on the Limits of McCainism

The American Prospect is leading the charge against John McCain, and of the two lines of attack — from Matt Yglesias, McCain is “a principled militarist” and from Mark Schmitt, McCain is “an unprincipled opportunist” (call this Kitchen Sink II) — I think Schmitt’s is the more devastating, whatever one thinks of the substance of the accusations.

Those who credit McCain with “a solid record on reform,” like Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, often cite McCain’s investigation of the contracting process for a fleet of Air Force tankers, which sent several Boeing executives and Department of Defense procurement officials to jail. While the wrongdoing McCain exposed was real, his achievement is colored by new information that several of the lobbyists closest to him and who now staff his campaign were employed on behalf of Boeing’s competitor for the contract, the parent company of Airbus.

The McCain campaign needs to respond to this, and they need to respond quickly. Perhaps they have. But Schmitt is a serious analyst who would have mentioned any convincing caveats. Now, this isn’t dispositive — note that Airbus is a foreign firm, an unpopular thing to be in the world of defense contracting, and it is an objectively good thing to champion the interests of the lowest-price bidder in this case. It’s hardly surprising that a foreign firm would hire McCain allies, as they are less likely, as free traders, to embrace a narrow economic nationalism. If I were a flack, I’d be quite comfortable flacking for Dubai Ports World — because I’d be on their side for free. All that said, this certainly looks not very good to the untrained eye.

Schmitt’s broader critique is very smart.

McCain also discovered a unique means of exercising power during the Bush years, after almost two decades as a notably ineffectual legislator. When bipartisanship and common sense were scarce resources, McCain realized he could effectively corner the market on both. Wherever there seemed the possibility of a deal — on climate change, immigration, taxes, or torture — McCain swept in to position himself as the one Republican ready to break with party orthodoxy and negotiate. Many of his compromises fizzled, but in other cases, by grabbing the center chair even on issues well outside the purview of his committees, he was able to work a deal that was acceptable to his K Street allies or to the White House, as he did on the torture bill. Even when nothing came of these efforts, he was able to block anyone else from taking that center spot, perhaps someone who might have done more with the opportunity.

In truth, this is more a critique of McCain’s competence and judgment than it is of his principles. Chances are he pursued these solutions in deadly earnest and not in an effort to secure power or gain influence or, worse still, attention. But to my mind this is all the more damning. McCain needs to convince us that he can lead, that he has a detailed mastery of the issues he’ll be faced with in the White House and that he is surrounded by a deep bench of experienced policymakers.