Friday, October 17, 2008

critiquing mccain

i've been meaning to get around to my critical review of john mccain as a presidential candidate, but i've been pretty busy, and there have been so many other things to write about. but having written critically about hillary clinton and barack obama, it only seemed fair to say a word about mccain before election day.

i want to start by saying that there's a lot that i admire about john mccain -- his courage and integrity as a prisoner of war, tortured but refusing to break faith with his fellow prisoners being among the first things to appreciate. he has spent his political career as a man with his own mind, willing to go against party orthodoxy and political expediency, even when it might cost him; i especially note his support for the surge in iraq, when it looked like political suicide. for all of his past mistakes, he seems to be a politician with a moral sense and convictions, something all too rare in this age of focus groups and poll-driven policy. and on some issues (notably his staunch opposition to abortion and his commitment to judges who will interpret the law, rather than legislate), i am much closer to him than to obama.

so why am i reluctant about mccain? aside from a variety of policy differences, some of which are significant (on the use of the military, on immigration, on the most crucial challenge facing our generation), i've begun to wonder: who is he, anymore? in 2000, mccain ran as a straight-talking, problem-solving maverick -- a kind of hybrid conservative who liked to reach across the aisle to solve problems, even when it angered the power brokers in the republican party. he still says some of those things about himself. but his 2008 campaign has seemed strangely disjointed and incoherent to me, causing me to wonder if he's really himself anymore. To wit:
  • gas tax holiday: during the republican primaries, mccain came out in favor of a gas tax holiday (along with clinton). this just seemed like an obvious pander that didn't address the underlying problem. in other words, it felt very political and not like a proposal that came out of his core values. obama got this one right by refusing to join in the chorus.
  • $300 billion mortgage buyout: mccain's proposal for the federal government to spend $300 billion to buy up trouble mortgages is certainly bold, but aside from the fact that i think it's a dubious solution, it makes me wonder about mccain's consistency -- is he really for fiscal responsbility and less government?
  • $52 billion tax cut stimulus package: i appreciate what he's trying to do here, but again, what of fiscal responsibility? mccain has spent his career as a budget hawk, but this (along with the mortgage buyout) looks like an invitation to massive deficits and an increasing national debt. in the short-term, that's a problem (inflationary pressures), but in the long term, it's immoral (saddling succeeding generations with an ever-increasing debt burden). where will he cut spending to compensate? in mccain's defense, obama's economic proposals have the same problem, perhaps to an even greater degree. but at least obama advertises himself as a big government liberal; these proposals have me questioning who mccain really is.
  • turning molehills into mountains: i've been surprised at mccain's persistence in going after greed and corruption and earmarks, while ignoring the bigger-ticket items of social security, medicare, and military spending. this seems like straining at gnats and swallowing camels. if he's really the maverick reformer he says he is, if he's really going to talk straight to the american people, how about a little truth on how we're going to address the real programs that are bankrupting america? again, obama doesn't do any better, but as a liberal, i don't really expect him to address these issues.
bottom line: i wonder if mccain has lost his true self in the midst of trying to win the presidency (a charge that might stick to obama as well). i don't need to agree with a candidate on everything, but i do want to believe that he is going to do what he thinks is best for the country -- not for his own election (or re-election). and with all of the pandering and populist rhetoric, i wonder if mccain is giving up his most attractive quality -- his personal integrity and moral convictions -- in search of enough votes to go to the white house.

perhaps my root problem with mccain is that i want him to be something that he's not. i wish he could cast a contrasting and compelling vision of an america with a constitutionally-limited government and greater individual freedom and responsibility. but what i mostly hear is a less drastic version of obama's government-will-save-the-day vision. and i just don't believe in it.

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