McCain's High Horse
No man is more entitled to preen about his honor and heroism than John McCain. But honor has its limits, both as a campaign strategy and as a governing philosophy.
To start, there's the danger of overplaying your hand. McCain's constant talk about honor and sly reminders of his own heroism are beginning to resemble that sequence in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray tries to seduce Andie MacDowell with sincerity. His first attempt almost succeeds, but repeated efforts get progressively more self-conscious, coarser, and therefore less successful. Yes, senator, fine, you're Luke Skywalker. Now, can we drop it?
McCain is not above misusing his honor as a blunt instrument. In the South Carolina debate last week, Alan Keyes raised a perfectly legitimate question about McCain's muddled position on abortion. How can McCain believe that fetuses are full human beings and still say that he would allow his daughter to decide for herself whether to kill one? In response, McCain staged an umbrage fit: "I've seen enough killing in my life, a lot more than you have ... and I will not listen to your lectures about how I should treat this very important issue." Oh, please. McCain cheapens his own heroism when he tries to use five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp as a rhetorical get-out-of-jail-free card.
George W. Bush's widely mocked garble about McCain taking his "high horse" on the "low road" is actually, with a bit of untangling, a pretty good image. It's one thing to drop your negative ads and challenge your opponent to do the same. But it's a bit rich to carry on as if no decent person would ever do what you yourself were doing just a few days before.
The raison d'être of George W. Bush's campaign has been electability, so losing a primary damages him more than it damages McCain. McCain's campaign raison d'être has been honor—he's morally superior to his opponents. So when he and Bush get down and dirty—neither one worse than the other, and in fact neither one especially bad at all by prevailing political standards—it hurts McCain a lot more. It's disingenuous, if not dishonorable, for McCain to insist that he's not going negative when he says, "I won't take the low road to the highest office." For that matter, his very campaign theme of honor implies that the other fella doesn't have it, which is certainly negative.
McCain is hard to nail on hypocrisy because he is so quick with the mea culpa. This too is an honorable habit that becomes cynical with excessive repetition. When McCain says he feels personally dishonored by the corrupt culture of influence peddling in Congress, it's more like an invitation to grant him an exemption ("Oh no, Sen. McCain, not you ...") than an opportunity to consider the evidence. When he publicly flagellates himself for insufficient stoicism under Communist torture, you are being encouraged to think he must be innocent of any vice or failing he accuses himself of.
The limits of honor as a governing philosophy are best illustrated by McCain's foreign policy. This is the area in which he is considered to be most thoughtful and qualified. But his abstract principles on the question of using American force (as presented in a speech last year) are an unhelpful collection of yin-and-yang bromides. He's proud of the label "internationalist" and rejects calls to "turn inward." But our values and our interests must both be engaged to justify military action. Yet values vs. interests is a "false distinction," since each promotes the other. "Build coalitions to protect our interests and values, don't neglect our interests and values to build coalitions," and so on. McCain's string of "don'ts" may or may not be valid criticisms of the Clinton record, but as a philosophy or guide to decision-making they are worthless. Who is consciously in favor of neglecting our interests and values?
In the South Carolina debate, McCain declared, "We shouldn't have gone into Kosovo" because our interests and values weren't at stake. Last year, he said, "I sincerely believe that Serbia's assault on Kosovo did threaten our national interest"—but only because Presidents Bush and Clinton had put American credibility on the line. He supported Clinton's decision to intervene, but bitterly criticized the bombing as inadequate and the public forswearing of ground troops as cowardly. He has been eloquent about the evils of Milosevic, the suffering of the Kosovars, and the inadequacies of our apparent victory. And yet he apparently thinks a better president would have done nothing about these evils in the first place.
The most coherent gloss you can put on all this is that it is about honor. Honor enters in two ways: First, you need a more honorable president than Bill Clinton, who lacks both the courage to use force and the love for our soldiers not to. And second, the clearest justification for using military force is to preserve national honor. But McCain believes a more honorable president will only put American honor into play where it should be anyway. So the concept of honor tells you nothing in the end about where force should be used.
Then, too, American honor and credibility were the reasons we kept the war in Vietnam going for years after we'd lost interest in any other rationale. No one paid more for that folly than John McCain.
Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.