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When Personality Morphs Into Policy

What voters find appealing in McCain is not just character.

February 27, 2000|David Brooks | David Brooks is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. He is the author of "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There," due out in May

WASHINGTON — We don't know where Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaign will land, but we can pinpoint when it took off. About a year ago, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosovic was cleansing Kosovo of ethnic Albanians. There were reports of massacres and gang rapes and forced marches. The Clinton administration was gearing up to do something about it. The House Republicans were at cross purposes--pretty sure that whatever President Bill Clinton did, they'd be against it. Texas Gov. George W. Bush did the politically prudent thing--and disappeared off the radar screen. Among Republicans, only McCain rushed to declare himself. He criticized the way Clinton was taking us into Kosovo. But he argued vehemently that the world's superpower could not stand by as civilization unraveled in the middle of Europe.

Suddenly, McCain was being quoted all over. He emerged as the most prominent GOP voice on foreign affairs. As the Carnegie Endowment's Robert Kagan noted, Kosovo was the first primary and McCain won it.

McCain has traction on foreign affairs because of his war record, but this was a policy victory. And that's worth remembering now, when McCain is surging, because many people see his rise as a triumph of character over policy. The Bushies and their allies insist he's just a war hero thriving on the anti-Clinton vote.

Now, there is a lot of truth to that. McCain plays up his war record, as all veterans do, and it draws people. His character is so vivid, it tends to obliterate his programs and ideas. Furthermore, no one will take McCain for a policy wonk. Back when he had free time, he would read short stories and history books, not policy tomes, and his domestic programs are not as well developed as Bush's.

Nor is McCain an ideological person. You can press him all you want on the back of his campaign bus, but you cannot draw him into a discussion about philosophy or political theory. As P.J. O'Rourke observes, he used to land planes on aircraft carriers. People who do something that counterintuitive don't indulge in long deliberations.

But McCain wouldn't be doing so well if he were just a war hero. Former Senate Majority Leader and GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole was a hero, and he never generated this kind of enthusiasm. What McCain has is a coherent approach to governing. He has been able to translate his virtues--honor, candor and courage--into a political agenda that requires those virtues. So there is a governing philosophy, "McCainism," even if he is himself unable to explain what it is.

McCainism starts with patriotism. We're all patriotic, but for McCain it is at the center of his life. He titled his memoir "Faith of My Fathers"--America is his faith-based institution. On the stump, he describes his book as the story of three flawed individuals (his grandfather, father and himself) who found "redemption" in service to a cause larger than themselves: their country. Note the religious language. McCain, like the rest of us, is always struggling with selfishness. Patriotism is his antidote. This has policy implications. In fact, it leads to the four pillars of McCainism:

1. Use government to confront selfish interests. If you look back over his public career, you see that it is a series of confrontations with groups who, McCain feels, have put their own selfish interests above the national interest. He attacked the tobacco companies because he thought they were poisoning kids, lying to Congress and putting their own profits over America's needs. For similar reasons, he attacks the "special interests" in Washington, the ethanol subsidizers and the congressional pork-barrelers. When he got caught up in the Keating Five scandal a few years ago, he found himself succumbing to the temptations of the system. That fired his combative zeal.

President Theodore Roosevelt, McCain's hero, used to go after the "malefactors of great wealth," but the living politician McCain most resembles is New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose career is also a series of confrontations. As in Giuliani's case, this method is confusing when judged by the normal ideological categories. Sometimes the targets of McCain's attack are on the right, sometimes they are on the left. Sometimes he is better at identifying targets than crafting legislative remedies. But if he were president, this is how he would use the power of his office. He would attack selfish interests (as he saw them), whether lobbyists or teachers unions or pork-barrelers.

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