"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
February 14, 2000
POLITICS: McCain For President
This is an email I wrote to some friends on February 14, 2000. Some of it now looks embarrassing in retrospect - particularly how little I was thinking about foreign policy and judicial nominees at the time, and the fact that I failed to foresee McCain's veer to the left. Other predictions, particularly with regard to the Democrats' behavior after 2000 and the guilt-by-association problem with Bush's financial supporters, hold up fairly well.
Here is why, as a conservative Republican, I support McCain for president (in no particular order; I won't bother discussing the broader policy questions of why I would vote for McCain over Gore, since I would not expect to presuade anyone on that kind of score). I address two topics: why McCain has a better chance of beating Gore in the fall, and why he is better suited to the presidency than Bush.
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A. WHY McCAIN IS A BETTER CANDIDATE FOR THE REPUBLICAN PARTY THAN BUSH
1. McCain is a better campaigner. He functions better in free-wheeling exchanges with voters. He's wittier, faster on his feet. His message comes through clearer on television. He has shown a tremendous ability to motivate independent voters; in New Hampshire, the GOP primary broke voter-turnout records, bucking the downward trend of the past 125 years.
2. McCain is a tougher candidate. He is tough enough, and seasoned enough in two decades of bruising Washington melees, to stand up to the sort of smear campaign Al Gore has heaped on Bill Bradley. His inspiring life story inoculates him from the type of son-of-privilege charges that Democrats have levelled against Bush. McCain has learned his lessons the hard way.
3. McCain is the type of person we want in a president. McCain's character -- while hardly saintly -- is his greatest asset on the campaign trail; people know, just by listening to his candor and by hearing the story of his POW experience, that here is a man who will do what he thinks is right and say what he thinks is true. It is true, as Steve Forbes has pointed out, that the best defense against influence peddling is to attack the influence, not the peddling. But the executive brach of the federal government will always have enormous power, and the only real defense against its abuse is to choose executives who have demonstrated strength of character and the courage of their convictions.
4. McCain speaks to the integrity gap. It is very hard to watch the Clinton spin machine and honestly say that this is how our government should operate. And no, it has not always been like this. McCain's campaign-finance crusade gives him credibility in arguing for a thorough cleaning of the Augean stables of the Clinton-Gore administration, and in calling Gore on his deep involvement in legally suspicious and ethically indefensible fundraising practices. Bush, by contrast, seems embarrassed even to speak the name of the dishonesty and doublespeak that have pervaded our public discourse and public institutions in the past eight years. McCain isn't, and when he says that the Clinton era is ending, everyone knows what he is talking about. Even impeachment will help McCain. Impeachment, after all, was a stand on principle; all you heard for months was that the American people were against it. Underneath that, however, there was always widespread disapproval of the idea of Clinton walking away completely scot-free, as he did. With a year and a half of hindsight, we have McCain -- who voted to remove the president from office -- and Bush -- who was completely and totally silent, a conscientious objector in the battle to preserve a place for truth in politics and in the legal system. Gore chose party loyalty over principle, and like Gerald Ford he will be vulnerable to a candidate who is willing to point that out. Who will be a better contrast to Gore, who on the very day of impeachment led a pep rally declaring Clinton to be one of our greatest presidents? Who can credibly take Gore to task for never saying even a tepid word against the president's conduct (in the Jones lawsuit and the grand jury investigation) until long after the battle was over?
5. McCain will turn the campaign back into a two-horse race. McCain will also suck the air out of the Buchanan campaign (and with the Ventura/Trump wing gone, the Reform Party and its matching funds will go to Pitchfork Pat), thus creating the first real two-party race since 1988 and squelching Buchanan's bad influence. McCain's reformist energy is attracting independent voters, killing the base of a third party insurgency. Buchanan's tough talk on foreign policy will sound wimpy on a stage between two Vietnam vets. And McCain's soft spots on the right -- campaign finance reform and taxes -- are issues Buchanan can't use because Reform Party sugar daddy Ross Perot practically invented the popular momentum for balanced budgets and campaign reform. With Bush, Buchanan will be energized with "New World Order" rhetoric and charges that the two parties are owned by the special interests.
B. WHY McCAIN WILL BE A BETTER PRESIDENT THAN BUSH
1. People trust John McCain. This hardly needs explanation, but the president's connection and credibility with the people create an asset to draw on in getting things done. McCain's support is based heavily on the trust and admiration people have for him, and as a result they will follow him where others could not lead. Yes, McCain has been less detailed than Bush in laying out his policies, and as a result a McCain presidency would cede some of the leadership in drafting complex legislation to Congress. But a president can be just as effective by setting general directions, looking out for the interests he believes in, and selling the result to the people, just as Ronald Reagan did with tax reform in 1986, or LBJ with civil rights in 1964. McCain can do that.
2. McCain is better prepared to lead America in dangerous times. The next president needs to reverse the foreign policy drift of this administration. McCain has been deeply involved in foreign policy issues for years, and will not have a learning curve. He is ready on day one to deal with crises and form long-range strategies. You may debate whether or not Bush is suited to the foreign policy aspects of the job -- but there's no question which candidate is ahead on this point.
3. This is an important one for independent voters, particularly -- McCain is better prepared to forge bipartisan solutions on Social Security and Medicare. Everyone in Washington knows that these two programs need to be fixed, but real leadership is needed. By taking away the tax-cuts-for-the-rich card, McCain can provide that leadership without imperiling the rest of his agenda. McCain has proposed to spend a large amount of the budget "surplus" on long-term Social Security fixes and has supported the bipartisan Medicare commission recommendations. Keep dreaming if you think Republicans (or Democrats) can or will resolve these issues alone. McCain's smaller-tax-cut rhetoric will win him important credibility with senior citizens on these issues, and his reputation for independence (and grey hairs of his own) will make it easier for him to build a popular consensus. With Clinton and Gore out of town it will be possible to line up Democratic support on Medicare, and a popular consensus can be constructed on Social Security. I believe that McCain is simply more willing to pitch a fight on these issues even though the solutions may not be the highest priority for the Repblican voting base.
4. McCain is better equipped to prevent partisan investigations from crippling his ability to govern. Make no mistake, if a Republican wins, with a Republican Senate and a narrowly divided (one way or the other) House, Democrats will be nearly disenfranchised and will be looking to tar and feather the new president with investigations. McCain has seen this game played in Washington for years and learned a lot of hard lessons from the Keating Five investigation about how to handle being under a microscope. Bush, by contrast, seems to think that the Democrats will play nice with him if he plays nice with them. Yeah, that's what his dad thought too, and they made him put up with nonsense like the "October Surprise" investigation. And Bush's enormous stable of big financial backers and ties to GOP incumbents will make it much easier to manufacture a guilt-by-association charge. The next president has to keep the shop open no matter what they throw at him.
5. Campaign finance reform is not the end of the world for the Republican Party. The current system is one that nobody could love, on either side. Two of the main "soft money" sources are corporations and unions. Corporations are mercenaries; the lack of loyalty to the GOP in the business community is legendary, as is the loyalty of union leadership (irrespective of the views of their rank and file) to Democrats. Anything that reduces the influence of such entities will be good for Republicans, and good for the shareholders and union members whose moneys are used without their consent. Moreover, breaking the party's devotion to certain industries may be a healthy development in the long run. The GOP is always strongest when it is pro-business generally and on principle, rather than circling the wagons around particular industries. Free TV time, in and of itself, is fine for the GOP; the people it hurts are third party insurgents. Also, some of the main aspects of the McCain-Feingold plan will have to be moderated anyway to avoid legal challenges, and if a bill with bipartisan support is to pass a Republican Senate there will no doubt be compromises to address the ways in which the artificially low $1,000 per person contribution limit -- enacted in 1974 and not indexed to the tremendous decline in the value of a dollar in the past 26 years -- have turned candidates into full-time fundraisers and forced inexperienced rich men to run for office rather than backing more qualified candidates. In short, an overhaul of the system is likely to produce at least some results that everyone will like, while keeping the current rules helps nobody.
I have been quite undecided in the primaries until very recently. George Bush is a good man, has shown some of the essential virtues of an executive -- such as the ablility to set clear priorities and delegate authority -- and has a good, conservative policy platform. And Senator McCain does have his drawbacks, including the incumbent-friendly aspects of his campaign finance crusade and his assaults on the supply-side assumptions of Bush's tax plan. It is still not clear to me that Senator McCain -- or Governor Bush, for that matter -- is as radical as he needs to be in pressing (against the weight of liberal Beltway and media orthdoxy) for the two most critical reforms needed by the next administration: strong federal support for universal school choice and long-term conversion of Social Security to an investment account system subject to individual control. But McCain brings the leadership and character the Republican party and the country have needed for the past eight years, and his administration will be well-situated and willing to address our nation's most pressing problems and challenges.
My vote counts, and I'm going to use it on March 7 here in NY. I hope you will too.
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February 2, 2000
POLITICS: New Hempshire . . .
. . . as Paul Tsongas used to call it, actually meant something this year. I'm actually thinking of donating a little money to McCain -- I'm still not sure who to vote for (I haven't heard enough from him on the three most important domestic issues, education reform, Social Security reform and selection of federal judges) but I'd hate to see his campaign peter out for lack of funds (though it would be ironic). A fight to somewhere close to the finish (which can only happen if there's a split decision on March 7) would, I think, be good for the party, particularly since Bush (if he wins) has enough cash on hand to keep the machine rolling (unlike Dole in 1996, who was forced into a quiet period after the primaries while Clinton and his media allies filleted him on tobacco and abortion). The bad primary fights are the ones you get when one candidate has no chance, like Forbes or Buchanan. Bradley may be like that, hammering Gore on integrity and ethics rather than engaging an accross-the-board issues debate. But Bush and McCain both need to keep one eye on November, and both fancy themselves civil-minded moderates, so there's only so bad it will get.
I don't think Bush will actually move to the right on any issues, as the pundits warn -- he'll just have to learn better how to sell the conservative agenda. If he can't do that he can't win anyway. He actually is a real conservative already -- "compassionate conservative" is BS, I've always thought he should call it "smiley face conservative," because it's about explaining the existing agenda's virtues (i.e., why conservative policies are a better deal for the middle class and the poor) through a nonthreatening candidate, rather than actually changing policy (which is fine with me).
Gore-Bradley, by contrast, is still highly unlikely to be a real race, but it could be a long ugly fight like Dole-Forbes in 1996 and Clinton-Brown in 1992. Bradley has a lot of cash and he's showing signs of being bitter enough at the direction of his party to stay and fight long after Gore has effectively clinched. Having Gore constantly taunting him for being a quitter can't help the case of people who want him to bail out early for the sake of party unity. Gore has already moved left but I don't think he'll really move any further -- but he could take some punishment by the unprecedented spectacle of a fellow Democrat breaking the code of silence on the ethics of Clintonism.
The real message of New Hampshire, as I see it, is that the strong showing of McCain and Gore and the late revival by Bradley proves one thing: the voters are NOT tired of negative campaigning or of strongly and specifically worded appeals to integrity and combat. Bush's just-the-agenda, forget-the-last-8-years strategy captured the popular imagination in the summer of 1999 because people were sick to death of arguing about impeachment, but a year later the voters are looking for someone to explain how we reached that nadir in the first place and how to avoid a repeat, not of the acrimony, but of the scandal itself. The Clintonites argued that the only really bad thing was GOP insistence on "divisiveness," on casting judgment (this is the type of logic that says high crime statistics mean cops are arresting too many people). Contrary to what they would have you believe, I think that once people moved past the don't-rock-the-boat stage of opposing impeachment during a market boom they began to recognize that this was not a morally neutral argument -- that there is some virtue in alarming people when their government has grown corrupt and its leaders too accustomed to the habits of deceit. To voters concerned about such issues, Bush's conscientious objector status on the ethical issues comes accross as unduly timid. McCain roared ahead in the polls late in large part, I think, because he promised GOP conservatives that he would go after Al Gore on Gore's dubious honesty (don't forget that McCain voted to remove the president from office), while Bush increasingly looked vulnerable to the kind of one-sided smear campaigning that is being used against Bradley. Bringing out dad -- who never did learn to fight back against Bill Clinton -- only underlined that.
This is an email I sent to friends on February 2, 2000.