On McCain's Contradictions

Robert Gordon is one of my favorite center-left thinkers, so it should come as no surprise that he landed many blows in TNR essay he’s co-authored with James Kvaal on McCain’s contradictions. I support John McCain, and I recognize that he’s facing a very tough political environment. That’s why he is often forced to embrace positions that are very much in tension with each other. My suspicion is that if McCain were running far ahead of the competition, if he faced a less polarized political environment, you’d see him embrace a different, more coherent set of policies. But campaign politics is about targets of opportunity, and for Republicans at this very fraught moment it is about papering over major fractures within the base. McCain’s contradictions are, as Gordon and Kvaal fully understand, rooted in these fractures — keeping the Bush bundlers on side while also reaching out to working class voters, etc. I don’t envy them their task.

To advance something like our agenda in GNP, you first have to do years of spadework. Ross and I simply aimed to get the ball rolling, to provoke and to advance the debate. But of course we can’t stand in for an entire policymaking apparatus. Part of our goal was to change the terms of the debate, to rethink what the welfare state is and what it can realistically achieve. In 2008, however, we have a set of political categories that are very deeply ingrained. The public understands taxes, not tax subsidies. The payroll tax is considered untouchable. Voters are underestimating the scale of the problems facing Medicare and they are overestimating the negative impact of trade. New narratives take time to take, and most campaigns are (understandably) hostile to experimentation. The Obama campaign, interestingly, is not, though it helps that they are flush with cash and face a very different, far more favorable media environment. I hold Obama in high esteem as a candidate. And yet the thinness of his resume is really something. I don’t think that disqualifies him, but it is damn impressive that he’s made it this far, and will likely go farther still.