May 02, 2008
McCain’s occasional rants against pork barrel spending and big deficits may suggest that he’s a limited government conservative in the model of Reagan or Goldwater, at least compared to Hillary and Obama (and Bush). But his rants against pork and spending are misleading.
McCain’s not against government spending per se. He’s particularly not interested in the ways the health of the economy, the welfare state, and taxes interact. After all, he’s been a government worker almost his whole life, and such training (coupled with marrying a wealthy heiress) makes one indifferent to budgets and cost. McCain’s simply against anything that reeks of selfishness and avarice. McCain’s politics are an “honor politics.” His model of American virtue is found primarily in the military. In McCain’s eyes, we must all put the nation in front of the individual, the private business, and the interests of one’s state and region. Hence, his opposition to pork, but also his opposition to big profits and media muck-raking, coupled with his relative ambivalence about huge spending on the Iraq War, entitlements, or any project that has a whiff of the heroic and the grand.
Consider his recent statements on Hurricane Katrina. He blamed Bush for New Orleans’ woes, while saying nothing about that city’s decades-long reputation as a place of violence and corruption. He vowed in his typical militaristic style “not to leave anybody behind” if he’s elected president. He rather amazingly committed to protecting sub-sea-level New Orleans from a Category Five hurricane, reasoning that “to protect the lives of American citizens, we can always find the money.”
McCain’s not a conservative, nor does he believe that America’s virtues thrive chiefly outside of the political realm in its schools, churches, universities, clubs, farms, and privately owned businesses. He makes a cult out of the government, reasoning that the GS-11s making a middle class living working 9-5 and enjoying such dubious holidays as Presidents’ Day are ontologically in the same vaunted “public service” category as the boys storming the beaches at Normany.
Conservatives should beware: McCain not only will support equal or greater degrees of government spending, but he will rap himself in the flag as he does so. Draft-dodging baby boomers and wealthy (but soft and insecure) Gen Xers may be reluctant to resist his calls for expensive programs of “national greatness” because of his impressive exploits as a Navy pilot and POW. We should not allow him to use his biography as a cudgel. Military service and conservatism are not the same. Conservatism is an approach to politics and culture. Military service is something that liberals, conservatives, and the apolitical all participate in without much fuss during a national emergency confronting any normal society. The abornomality of the ‘60s does not transform military service into an unassailable political credential.
After all, Truman, LBJ, Carter, and Ford were combat-tested veterans too.
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