This past week, the straight-talking John McCain the media knows and loves made a conspicuous comeback. On Face the Nation, McCain struck a decidedly post-partisan note, praising the late Senator Kennedy before sharply contradicting fellow Republican Dick Cheney on torture. After a punishing defeat at the hands of Barack Obama, McCain seems to have regained his stature and his reputation for independence. He's had more media exposure than any other leading Republican, certainly far more than John Kerry in 2005 or Al Gore in 2001. His views on a wide range of issues, from health-care reform to the war in Afghanistan, are thus given far more weight than any other distinguished elder statesman. But despite all that, McCain does not represent the angrier, more combative Republican Party of the Obama era, and he knows it. If McCain is once again the darling of the Sunday talk show circuit, it is for many of the same reasons he couldn't defeat Obama in 2008.
The upshot of McCain's honor politics is that his policy views represent an unstable and confusing brew.
When Bob Schieffer asked McCain about Ted Kennedy, he was quick to cite Kennedy's loyalty: "One of the fundamental reasons for his success was, once he gave his word it was never broken." This was a telling remark, as this kind of loyalty is a virtue that McCain prizes above all others. In February of last year, Yuval Levin, a veteran of the Bush White House and a conservative critic of McCain, wrote a tremendously insightful essay for National Review on what he called McCain's "honor politics." For McCain, politics is not about a positive ideology, like opposition to big government or a commitment to eradicating poverty; rather, it is about love of country and an ideal of honor. When he makes a promise, he fully intends to keep it.
So when constituents demanded that he pass a patients' bill of rights in the early 2000s, he fought hard for it. When he was accused of campaign finance irregularities, he dedicated several years of his life to passing campaign finance reform legislation. And when the United States makes a commitment to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, he believes that the nation is honor-bound to keep it, almost regardless of the costs involved.
Throughout the presidential campaign, McCain tried to reconcile his sense of honor with the demands of serving as the standard-bearer of a political party with a very different set of concerns. Many observers noted that McCain would have been very much at home in the GOP of the Nixon-Ford era, when his anti-ideological sensibility was dominant. In 2008, however, McCain had to appeal to a shrunken Republican base that genuinely feared Obama as a dangerous leftist with questionable allegiances. On more than one occasion, McCain forcefully defended Obama's patriotic bona fides, most memorably during his concession speech, when he seemed to connect far less well with his audience than his decidedly more red-meat running mate Sarah Palin. McCain's sense of fair play led him to attack Obama for his not-so-close relationship with Bill Ayers, but not for his decades-long membership in Jeremiah Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ. For McCain the logic was entirely clear; to outsiders, including diehard conservatives, it was completely baffling.
The upshot of McCain's honor politics is that his policy views represent an unstable and confusing brew. The same man liberals like Jonathan Chait and Joshua Green saw as the ideal Democratic presidential candidate for 2004 has now joined forces with Senator Mitch McConnell to defeat Obama's effort to create, in McCain's words, a government-run health system. During a raucous town hall in Phoenix last Wednesday, McCain showed his best side and his worst side. He handled enraged protesters with grace and wit. That said, his answers to a number of questions were frustratingly slippery. When one audience member demanded to know why McCain had a good health plan and he did not, the senator was very generous: "I'm trying to get it for you," he pledged, only he insisted that President Obama's approach was not the right way to do it. McCain opposes an intrusive government-run health system, yet he's also promising to deliver the goods to a disgruntled constituent, as though the federal government can wave a wand and deliver that desirable outcome. This is not the straightest of straight talk.
Shortly before the town hall, during an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, McCain spoke of the "peaceful revolution" unfolding in America, which he attributed to "concern about the generational theft that we've committed by running up unconscionable and unsustainable deficits." Generational theft is a powerful idea, one that clearly resonates for an honor politician like McCain. There is something deeply dishonorable about leaving the next generation with a crippling burden. On close examination, however, it's fairly clear that opposition to Obamacare isn't primarily about generational theft; the most intense opposition comes from seniors, who oppose any effort to trim the long-term costs of Medicare. At the risk of hyperbole, these angry oldsters can be described as generational looters hellbent on leaving Americans unlucky enough to be under-50 with sky-high taxes for the rest of their lives.
The return of McCain is good news for many reasons. He is a thoughtful and dedicated public servant with encyclopedic knowledge of the security challenges facing the United States, and he is genuinely committed, as a matter of honor, to improving the quality and effectiveness of our public institutions. That is rare. If it's really true that President Obama is wavering in his commitment to helping the government of Afghanistan secure its population, as recent news reports suggest, McCain will serve as an indispensable and, if necessary, ferocious critic. But McCain is ultimately a party of one.
Republicans committed to rebuilding their party will have to look for leadership elsewhere.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.