John McCain: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

With his victory in Florida, Sen. John McCain has become the clear front runner for the Republican nomination. It’s worthwhile, therefore, to take a closer look at what kind of president he might be.

The Good: While Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity sometimes portray McCain as a virtual clone of Ted Kennedy, the fact is that he is a true fiscal conservative—certainly more of a fiscal conservative than, say, Mitt Romney. He is well known as an opponent of earmarks and pork barrel spending. But perhaps more importantly, he has long been an advocate of entitlement reform. He was early an ardent support of personal accounts for Social Security, and has pushed for serious Medicare reform, including means-testing. Almost alone among Republicans, he opposed the disastrous Medicare prescription drug benefit.

He has offered the best health care reform plan of any of the candidates. While Mitt Romney has embraced the basic tenants of HillaryCare, McCain would change the tax code to equalize the treatment between employer-provided and individually-purchased health insurance. This is a vital step in moving away from our employment-based health care system toward a more consumer-oriented system. And, he would allow the purchase of low-cost insurance across state lines, avoiding regulation and mandates.

During his time in the Senate, he has never voted for a tax increase. While he has taken much heat for voting against the Bush tax cuts, he now calls for making those tax cuts permanent (although he would retain a vestige of the estate tax at a reduced rate and increased exemption). And, McCain is right that cutting taxes has too often become an excuse for republicans to avoid the hard task of cutting spending. Cutting taxes reduces the pain of government spending (at least for now), allowing Congress to avoid difficult choices. While taxes need to be cut—and McCain supports a number of tax cuts including reductions in the business tax rates and capital gains taxes—future tax cuts should be linked with spending cuts. As I argue in my book, Leviathan on the Right, it’s the size of government, stupid.

He is a strong and unapologetic free trader.

The Bad: John McCain frequently makes Dr. Strangelove look like a peacenik. Its not just his desire to remain in Iraq “for a hundred years.” It’s his bellicosity toward every enemy and perceived enemy from Iran to North Korea. He’s a true believer in the neoconservative goal of remaking the world to fit our desires and beliefs. At best on foreign policy he would be a competent Bush. At worst, he appears a recipe for perpetual conflict.

On domestic policy, he has shown a disturbing predilection for elevating every personal pet peeve, from steroids in baseball to airplane service quality, to a federal issue. And, he has embraced heavily regulatory environmental policies and compulsory national service. Like George W. Bush, he tends to support federal power over federalism, executive authority over legislative, and generally leans toward the imperial presidency.

The Ugly: John McCain appears to have little more than contempt for the First Amendment and free speech generally. He is the principal author of a campaign finance bill that severely restricts political speech. Not content with those restrictions on political speech, he has continually sought to expand regulation to other groups. He has said that he “would rather have a clean government than one where, quote, First Amendment rights are being respected, that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I’d rather have the clean government.” Any candidate who believes that respect for First amendment rights needs to be qualified by “quote,” raises serious concerns. Moreover, his general attitude appears to be that criticism of the government, the war, and in particular himself, is somehow unpatriotic.

Most worrisome of all appears to be McCain’s basic philosophy, which is unapologetically statist, as Matt Welch points out in his new book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick. McCain once said “each and every one of us has a duty to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest.” McCain believes that cause to be the good of the collective, often defined as the nation or the national community.

For believers in individual liberty and limited government, it’s a decidedly mixed bag. But, then again, aren’t they all?