Larison on Me on McCain

As most of you know, I am, despite profound ideological differences, a great admirer of Daniel Larison’s mind. In this post, he makes note of an obvious contradiction in a short argument I made on behalf of John McCain.

First, me:

The past seven years have been a time of extraordinary tumult in international affairs, and the world badly needs a period of consolidation and sweeping reform. Our diplomatic and economic institutions are ill suited to tackling the diffuse threats posed by climate change, financial contagion, mass epidemics and catastrophic terrorism. Only Nixon could go to China, and only McCain can reconcile conservatives to some of the hard steps the US will have to take [bold mine-DL].

Now for Daniel’s response:

Let us suppose that the “real” McCain has indeed been hidden, perhaps having been locked away in a dungeon (or at Guantanamo!) Man In the Iron Mask-style while his doppelgaenger roams free working his mischief on the campaign trail. After the election, the double will be slapped back into chains and the “real” McCain will emerge to govern, and perhaps at that point the “real” McCain’s real VP selection will also be presented to us. Regardless, this is the same “real” McCain conservatives cannot stand. They support him primarily because of his hawkishness and his embrace of the war in Iraq, but their enthusiasm for him becomes even more tepid each time he mentions climate change, to take one issue where he commands no loyalty from the right. Should he pursue the kind of institution-building agenda that I think Reihan has in mind, which will include more than a little international institution-building, he would run straight into a brick wall of opposition from the same populist and nationalist forces that rebelled against Bush the Elder in the early ’90s. The reason why it was claimed that only Nixon could go to China, as I’m sure Reihan knows, was that he was a zealous anticommunist throughout his career, so he was immunized against the charge of being soft on communism.

Apart from being very witty, I think this is pretty sound overall. My positive case for McCain was very brief — it is contained in this sentence — mainly because I think McCain would have a very hard time sticking to the various domestic policy proposals he has advanced during the course of the campaign. At the same time, per Yuval’s argument, McCain is governed by a fairly stringent code of honor: having pledged not to raise taxes, I wonder if he really can. My gut had been telling me that he’d be able to broker a deal that gave Democrats political cover to pursue some expensive economic rescue plan that might involve moving the needle on taxes on the rich, for example. Now, however, a McCain victory would be interpreted as a powerful anti-tax mandate.

Also, I focused more on the tragedy of the McCain campaign than on its substance, mainly because I find the substance mostly lacking. The symbolism of the first McCain presidential campaign struck me as noteworthy — in pointed in a different and more inclusive cultural direction for Republicans, and it promised more policy space as well.

Is McCain, as the subhed has it, the “best man” to unite America? Well, I think he’d have to be. Let me stress that “uniting America” isn’t necessarily the highest priority of the next president — perhaps Barack Obama would not “unite with” about 35 percent of the country that is bitterly opposed to his agenda, and I think that’s fair enough. But McCain would, in my view, be forced to unite America because he became the standard-bearer of a minority faction in our politics. How could McCain govern without engaging in really radical outreach to Democrats and independents?

Writing the op-ed was tough. As I’ve noted to you guys, I have slightly odd views about this election. I think that partisan intensity matters, and that shared ownership of American foreign policy matters: both of these things suggest that an Obama victory would be a good thing, though I disagree with Obama on many issues. That said, independent of the campaign (absurd, I know), I think that McCain would be a solid president, and that he’d have an opportunity to reframe our politics in a good and constructive way. If this sounds like faint praise, it is.

Overarchingly, I think both candidates are hilariously unprepared for the nature and scale of the challenges they’re likely to face. Mitt Romney has a far wider range of relevant domestic experience than either of them. That’s not to say he’d necessarily make a better president — he has character flaws, lest we forget. But boy, I haven’t been as encouraged as many of my friends about these guys.

I’m hoping to write something short on what the hell McCain would have to do if he were elected — my nightmare scenario is that he’d win the Electoral College and lose the popular vote. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen for the sake of our sanity.

Honestly, I’m mainly interested in social peace, and the idea of inspiring little kids across the country does tug at my heartstrings: I am excessively sentimental. Little kids love Obama. It’s very cute. Now, that’s not a voting issue. If you want some non-muddled thoughts to inform your vote, check out David Frum=.

Thinking of myself as “ethnic” — a notion that extends from really loving Goodbye, Columbus to going wild-eyed with excitement while driving through Koreatown to finding the ’90s sitcom Martin sublimely brilliant — informs my worldview a fair bit, and it’s certainly on my mind now.

Gosh, I’ve been really depressed for the past two days, but am in this beautifully sunny place and things are looking up. Thanks.