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Only McCain…

Reihan has taken up the thankless task of making the argument for why McCain should be elected.  It is an interesting short read, but I think he goes a bit awry when he says this:

The past seven years have been a time of extraordinary tumult in international affairs, and the world badly needs a period of consolidation and sweeping reform. Our diplomatic and economic institutions are ill suited to tackling the diffuse threats posed by climate change, financial contagion, mass epidemics and catastrophic terrorism. Only Nixon could go to China, and only McCain can reconcile conservatives to some of the hard steps the US will have to take [bold mine-DL].

Let us suppose that the “real” McCain has indeed been hidden, perhaps having been locked away in a dungeon (or at Guantanamo!) Man In the Iron Mask-style while his doppelgaenger roams free working his mischief on the campaign trail.  After the election, the double will be slapped back into chains and the “real” McCain will emerge to govern, and perhaps at that point the “real” McCain’s real VP selection will also be presented to us.  Regardless, this is the same “real” McCain conservatives cannot stand.  They support him primarily because of his hawkishness and his embrace of the war in Iraq, but their enthusiasm for him becomes even more tepid each time he mentions climate change, to take one issue where he commands no loyalty from the right.  Should he pursue the kind of institution-building agenda that I think Reihan has in mind, which will include more than a little international institution-building, he would run straight into a brick wall of opposition from the same populist and nationalist forces that rebelled against Bush the Elder in the early ’90s.  The reason why it was claimed that only Nixon could go to China, as I’m sure Reihan knows, was that he was a zealous anticommunist throughout his career, so he was immunized against the charge of being soft on communism. 

By the “only Nixon” logic, only McCain can end the Iraq war, even though he has no intention of doing so, and only McCain could improve relations with Russia, which he wishes to isolate, demonize and harrass.  The trouble with the “only Nixon” dynamic is that those who are given the most flexibility to take the necessary or prudent move in a given situation are those least likely to make that move.  Indeed, their unwillingness to make that move 99 out of 100 times is the source of the credibility that allows them to make that move that one other time.  This is clearly a crazy way to approach things, but this seems to be the way the world works.  However, note that no one ever applies the reverse logic that only a friend of Islamists can wage the “war on terror” or that only a communist can de-nationalize industries. 

This is why the pleasant story that the “real” McCain has gone missing, but will be back any moment now, is so pernicious and misleading.  The reason McCain could not “bring along” conservatives were he to be the next President is the same reason he performed so poorly in the campaign.  The “real” McCain was forced to woo the right in the general election because he had never won them over in the primaries.  Never fully trusted by conservatives, he was constantly appealing to the core of the party down to the very last week of the campaign.  Even as he engaged in one pander after another, conservatives still found him lacking and thought that he was just going through the motions.  Even as he took the recommended Ayers-ACORN-Khalidi route to failure, conservatives thought he was not aggressive enough.  Nothing he could have ever done would have satisfied them, because most conservatives wanted anyone other than McCain as their nominee and were never fully reconciled to him.  If he became President, we would see the same response time and again, so that McCain would either give up trying to appease the base and become politically weakened or he would find himself constrained to go through the motions once again.  Either way, conservatives would be unsatisfied with him, because they know, as we all know, that the “real” McCain has not gone anywhere, and they also know, as we should know by now, he is quite willing to do whatever he thinks is necessary to advance his career.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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