Suddenly, John McCain has become the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. His support in national polls among Republican voters has risen 16 points since December. He may turn out to be the only person standing between Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama and the presidency.
Since McCain is thought to be on the right, the choice might appear easy for conservative voters. After all, both Clinton and Obama are famously Progressive in politics and much else. However, the choice this fall for conservatives may not turn out to be much of a choice at all.
This view of McCain may seem absurd. After all, McCain has been hawkish to say the least on the Iraq war when all the Democratic candidates have been looking for ways out. McCain also seems to be a soldier, concerned first and last for his honor. Democrats remain uneasy with the military in part because the virtues of the warrior ill fit the mores of the social worker. But McCain in the end is more a Progressive than a conservative.
I should say what I mean by "conservative." George Will correctly said that conservatives are trying to save America for James Madison. Readers of Madison's famous Federalist No. 10 should be struck by his concern for limited government and his fear of unconstrained majority rule. He hoped the United States could limit government by fragmenting power.
Madison, and the other founders for that matter, would have rejected the notion that citizens lived for the state, the nation, or some higher collective power. For them, individual liberty and rights were moral goods, not a selfish claim against the state.
Matt Welch's new book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick lays out the senator's philosophy. McCain once said "each and every one of us has a duty to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest." That cause will be the good of the collective, often defined as the nation or the national community.
That sounds fine and rather patriotic until your realize McCain's statement puts the nation before the individual, duties before rights (which are not mentioned), and denigrates the concerns of individuals to mere self-interest. None of these ideas have much to do with James Madison or conservatism.
McCain's progressivism may be seen mostly clearly in his primary legislative project: the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The First Amendment to the Constitution is not Progressive. It gives greater weight to the right of the individual to speak, to write, and to associate than to any collective purpose the government might have in suppressing speech. That right includes inevitably a right to spend money to speak, to write, and to associate. Without the right to spend, the other rights would have no concrete meaning.
In contrast, Progressives see speech as a means to a collective good -- improved public debate -- attained by government restrictions on individual liberty. In this view, free speech and free spending are mere self-interest or selfishness, vices to be overcome by benevolent censors.
For McCain, such self-interest should be sacrificed to the higher cause of "clean government." Hence, McCain's infamous statement on Don Imus's radio show: "I 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."
McCain also believes that the freedom to spend money in politics fosters distrust of government. (He is wrong about that, but never mind.) Why should distrust of government be a problem? James Madison and most contemporary conservatives prize a skeptical and critical attitude toward government.
But as Welch points out, McCain sees distrust of government as "a ceiling on our greatness" and contrary to fostering a proper pride in our institutions. Freedom of speech should give way to collective goodness.
President McCain -- and yes, the words make me shudder even subjunctively -- would pursue endless "reform" of campaign finance. He would do so in part for political reasons. Such restrictions on speech will quicken his transformation of the Republican Party away from its Reaganite past and toward a Rooseveltian future. But "reform" is more than a political tactic for McCain. For him, the First Amendment is a philosophical mistake that limits our true calling to national greatness. It is a mistake that might be corrected by proper laws and compliant courts.
John McCain does not want to save America for James Madison. He does not want to save America at all, because the Madisonian vision remains, for conservatives at least, what America means, the criterion of our hopes.
The election of a Progressive like Clinton or Obama would deprive conservatives of power. The election of a Progressive like McCain would deprive conservatives of both the government and the means to resist Progressivism. Which is the lesser evil?