'Reform. Reform. Reform.'
John McCain explains his eclectic--and troubling--economic philosophy.
by STEPHEN MOORE
Saturday, November 26, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST
WASHINGTON--The more Republicans stumble in Washington, the higher Sen. John McCain climbs in the polls. His political fortunes seem to run countercyclical to those of the party whose nomination for president he may very well capture in 2008. This at least partially explains why he's just about the hottest thing in town, the front-runner among GOP presidential contenders in all the early horserace polls. It also explains why even many conservatives, after his impetuous presidential run five years ago, are turning to him as the party's savior and the only antidote to Hillary Clinton.
So, as I sit across the coffee table from him in his Senate office, my mission is to solve the enduring mystery that has proven so elusive over the years: Just who is John McCain, and what is his economic philosophy?
When I ask Mr. McCain if he's a conservative, he seems slightly agitated at having to defend his credentials in this way. "Hell yes, I'm a conservative. When it comes to a strong defense and smaller government, I'm as conservative it gets. Look at my National Taxpayers Union rating. I'm near 100% every year." (I do. He is.) Then he fumes: "I'm so disgusted with the way my party is wasting money. It's an embarrassment."
It is on this issue that Mr. McCain has struck the mother lode. More than any other first-tier GOP candidate in 2008, Mr. McCain has shrewdly tapped into the rage that conservatives are feeling over President Bush's $800 billion Medicare drug bill (which he voted against), the highway bill with its 6,000 earmarked white-elephant projects (which he also voted against), and the infamous $500 million Alaska Bridge to Nowhere (which he led the crusade to defund). Mr. McCain whips out a spreadsheet detailing the legislation he drafted with Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn to cut the budget by $100 billion by canceling the highway pork, delaying the prescription drug bill, establishing a commission to end worthless government programs, and so on. Give the man his due: He has monopolized the anti-big-government Reaganite message of late.
Yet Mr. McCain holds the most eclectic set of economic policy positions of any politician I've ever met. He seems to defy political typecasting, reveling in the role of maverick. He voted against the Bush tax cuts ("Way too tilted to the rich"), while supporting antigrowth initiatives to combat global warming ("Climate change is just a huge problem that really needs to be confronted"), and is the lead sponsor--with Sen. Ted Kennedy--of a guest worker program to allow immigrants to enter the country legally. Any one of these landmines could blow up in Mr. McCain's face in conservative red state primaries in 2008. His 2000 presidential bid was capsized by Christian conservative primary voters in South Carolina. He readily concedes that "sometimes I have run-ins with the right-wingers in the party."
On the other hand, he's a fierce defender of free trade and a champion of school choice. "The day that members of Congress will send their kids to the public schools in Washington, D.C., is the day I'll know we've fixed education in America." Then he asks: "How can my colleagues say they are against vouchers or charter schools when they won't send their own kids to the schools in the town where we work?"
Mr. McCain has an intense and combative personality; I can't resist asking him about his world-famous explosive temper. He assures me, "I can't remember the last time I had a temper tantrum. I discovered a few years ago that my temper was reducing my effectiveness. It was preventing me from getting things done." But I'm not entirely convinced, suspecting that if I were to light a match in here when he's exercised about an issue and his blood pressure runs up, the whole office might go "Kaboom!"
During our interview, however, Mr. McCain is relaxed, cordial and gracious. While I disagree vehemently with him on many policy issues, it is thrilling to sit in his presence. He is a genuine American hero and patriot in an age when heroism and patriotism have gone out of style.
This is a man who has survived nearly being blown to pieces in Vietnam, five years as a POW at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," two years of solitary confinement, and one year of torture--yet when offered a chance to go home, he refused to break the military code of honor that POWs are released in order of their capture. Most recently, he has survived a bout of potentially fatal melanoma. In short, he's been to hell and back more times than any one person should have to in one lifetime, and still he insists that I sit while he pours me a cup of coffee and politely asks if I mind if he eats his brown-bag lunch.
In a political environment where many Republicans can't build a wall around the United States high enough to keep out immigrants, Mr. McCain is admirably one of the few leaders of the party willing to lock horns with the close-the-borders wing of the party. Of his adversaries on this issue, he asks: "What do they really want to do with the 11 million illegal immigrants that are here? Send them all back home?"
His own plan involves a three-step process: better border enforcement, a guest worker program, and an earned legalization program with a $2,000 fine for those who are here already. Anyone who has heard Mr. McCain on the stump lately knows that this is an issue he feels passionately about. "America must remain a beacon of hope and opportunity. The most wonderful thing about our country is that this is the one place in the world that anyone--through ambition and hard work--can get as far as their ambition will take them," he says, in optimistic rhetoric that is somewhat reminiscent of Ronald Reagan.
On a broader range of economic issues, though, Mr. McCain readily departs from Reaganomics. His philosophy is best described as a work in progress. He is refreshingly blunt when he tell me: "I'm going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated." OK, so who does he turn to for advice? His answer is reassuring. His foremost economic guru is former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm (who would almost certainly be Treasury secretary in a McCain administration). He's also friendly with the godfather of supply-side economics, Arthur Laffer.
But Mr. McCain is no antitax supply-sider himself. He grandstanded against the Bush capital-gains and dividend tax cuts and even co-sponsored an amendment with Tom Daschle to scuttle the reduction in the highest income-tax rates. Why? "I just thought it was too tilted to the wealthy and I still do. I want to cut the taxes on the middle class." Even when I confront him with emphatic evidence that those tax cuts have been an economic triumph and have increased revenues, he is unrepentant and defends his "no" vote by falling back on class-warfare type thinking: "We have a wealth gap in this country, and that worries me."
It is here in my conversation with the senator that the McCain economic philosophy starts to come into vivid focus. Throughout our chat he has referred to Theodore Roosevelt in almost reverential terms and glows when I ask about him. He calls TR "my hero . . . and one of our greatest presidents," and at one point he excitedly searches through his briefcase and pulls out a book that he is reading on the famously tumultuous election of 1912. That was when TR bolted from the Republican Party (which Mr. McCain concedes was "a mistake") and formed the Bull Moose Party to dethrone William Taft. When I mention TR's trust-busting (which was mostly counterproductive economically), Mr. McCain really comes to life, exultantly points his finger in the air, smiles and cries out: "He called the trusts 'the malefactors of wealth.' "
And in this very moment it becomes clear to me that John McCain aspires to be a modern-day TR. The similarities are unmistakable: Both were war heroes, mavericks within their own party, reformers and defenders of the little guy.
But here in a nutshell lies the danger of the McCain view of the world. Where some see the vast virtue of entrepreneurial wealth-generators and job-producers, he too often sees "robber barons." He seems forever in search of the next Joe Camel, Charles Keating, Ken Lay or Jose Canseco (Mr. McCain has been a prominent crusader against steroids in baseball).
He views himself, I believe, as a kind of modern-day Robin Hood, a defender of the downtrodden and tormentor of the bullying special interests, which is endearing and unquestionably a big part of his broad political appeal, but often leads to populist and parasitic economic policy conclusions like higher taxes on the rich and attacks on "huge oil profits." He wants to be the caped crusader against corruption. The buzzword for the McCain Straight Talk Express in 2008 will be reform: "I want to reform education, reform Medicare and Social Security, reform lobbying and campaigns. Reform immigration. Reform. Reform. Reform."
When I ask him about America's remarkable income mobility, he responds, "Yes, but I keep seeing the thousands of faces of those poor people who were left behind in New Orleans," as if this was a failure of capitalism, not a failure of government. And with this, he gobbles down the last bite of his unpretentious lunch--a hot dog and chips--shakes my hand warmly, and sprints off to his next appointment to clean up whatever the latest mess is in Washington.
I come away believing that if I'm ever in a knife fight or in a foxhole, there is no one I'd rather have next to me than John McCain. Whether he's someone who should be steering the rudders of the American economy is a different issue altogether.
Mr. Moore is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.
I think McCain is in essence an unpredictable quantity to conservatives and liberals alike. He doesn't fit neatly into the usual boxes (much as his idol TR) and he doesn't seem to have a specific and hard-core ideology about economics or politics that overrides his sense of humanity. I personally don't care for McCain's apparent stance on foreign affairs, but I do appreciate his willingness to consider the practical effects for the middle class of stimulus/incentive economics for corporations. McCain will either be wildly popular with everybody, or the equivalent of a skunk in the room -- all sides fearful that they're the ones who will get sprayed next....