E. M. Forster once wrote the book Two Cheers for Democracy. In that same spirit I say, “Two cheers for John McCain for president.” Winston Churchill once said: “Democracy is the worst possible form of government—except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” Likewise I say, “John McCain is the worst possible candidate for president—except for all the others.”
There are two things I don’t like about McCain. For one, he’s too old. He’s actually older than I am, and as I turn seventy, I know damned well that I’m too old for strenuous work; and I assume that being president of the United States is strenuous work. Second, he’s a Republican, and I’m a lifelong Democrat. Even though—being a Democrat of the FDR-Truman-Kennedy-LBJ variety—I’m pretty conservative by contemporary Democratic standards, still I’m a Democrat, and that means that I have deeply ingrained anti-Republican prejudices. My biggest objection to the Republican Party is that it’s a party dominated by big business interests (“the party of the rich”). My smallest objection is that Republicans insist on calling the Democratic Party the Democrat Party, discourteously omitting the “ic” from the end of the name. And then I have a dozen intermediate objections.
Nonetheless, on the really big issues, McCain, I think, is more correct than either Hillary or Obama. It’s not that I don’t like Hillary and Obama. Who could not like Obama? I’m not especially bothered by his “thin resumé.” Wasn’t the last thin-resumé presidential candidate from Illinois Abraham Lincoln? People generally find it easier to dislike Hillary than Obama, but not I; I like her too.
Still, I think the Democratic contenders are wrong and McCain is right about the things that matter most. They’re wrong because they are beholden to the ultras who have seized control of the national Democratic Party. I mean the MoveOn.org wing of the party: people who have good educations, good jobs, good incomes, good neighborhoods, good wine, good coffee, etc., plus a disdain not only for traditional morality and religion but for those Americans—we boobs, nincompoops, and potential fascists—who approve of traditional religious-moral beliefs and values. Obama is more beholden to these folks than Hillary is, but if she becomes president she won’t be able to defy many of their wishes, so great is their power in the party.
But what are the big issues as I see them? For me the single biggest issue is, and has been for many years, abortion. For those who believe, as I do (and as the Catholic religion does), that abortion is unjustifiable homicide, there is no logical way to vote for the presidential candidate of a party committed to the preservation and extension of abortion rights. As for the common argument given by a certain kind of Catholic—namely, that the Democrats are right on so many other things, and together these outweigh abortion—that seems to me to be an argument that is either intellectually careless or downright disingenuous. For how can anything outweigh the slaughter of innocents? Catholics who make this argument may say they believe abortion to be homicide, they may even actually think they believe this; but they can’t possibly believe it. For how could anybody really hold such contradictory beliefs? McCain has a prolife voting record in the Senate, Hillary and Obama have prochoice records. On this count, then, it’s easy for me to choose McCain.
Another important issue is Iraq. I agree with McCain that the 2003 invasion was justified. For me it wasn’t simply, or even mainly, a matter of weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein was a chronic and incorrigible troublemaker in one of the most sensitive regions of the world. He had waged a terrible war (with, it must be admitted, U.S. encouragement) against Iran; he had invaded Kuwait; he was a vicious tyrant who oppressed his own people (most notably Kurds in the north and “marsh Arabs” in the south); after being defeated in the “mother of all wars” (the first Gulf War), he repeatedly violated agreements he had made with the victors; he allegedly plotted the assassination of a former American president; again and again he defied United Nations resolutions; and if he did not in fact possess weapons of mass destruction, he gave the proverbial “reasonable man” every reason to believe that he did. Since I don’t believe that every troublesome nation has an inviolable right to sovereignty and noninterference (this perhaps made sense in the good old days of Woodrow Wilson but makes little sense in the days of Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, and a few other places), I felt that the U.S. policy of “regime change” in Iraq made sense: a policy adopted, it should be remembered, during the Clinton presidency and implemented during the Bush presidency.
But I also agree with McCain that the postinvasion occupation has been a disaster. This is due to at least two things: a great deficiency in the number of occupation troops (a point McCain has emphasized again and again), and a profound ignorance of Mesopotamian history and culture. During World War II it occurred to somebody in the U.S. government that our occupation of Japan might go more smoothly if we first took the trouble to learn something about Japanese culture. And so the government hired the famous anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who produced her classic study The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which contributed to the tremendously successful American occupation of Japan. Apparently nobody in the Bush administration had a similar thought about Iraq.
I also agree with McCain that the “surge” has been successful, proving that he was right when he insisted, against Donald Rumsfeld, that many more “boots on the ground” were needed. Rumsfeld deserves grades of A-plus for the invasion and F-minus for the occupation.
Most of all I agree with McCain when he says that, regardless of the merits of having invaded in the first place, the United States cannot afford to be defeated in Iraq. Such a defeat would hand a tremendous victory to Al Qaeda. I realize, of course, that if we “lose” in Iraq it won’t be due to Al Qaeda alone; it will also be due, and even more so, to Sunni-Shiite animosities. But it will be almost universally perceived as a victory for Al Qaeda.
For better or worse, the United States is seen as the world’s number-one “policeman.” We are expected by nearly everyone—even our European friends who love to find fault with us—to take the lead in maintaining international order (remember Kosovo?). If we are driven out of Iraq, it will be a defeat not just for our national prestige but, more important, for the cause of international order. Maybe we should never have accepted the call to be the world’s policeman in the first place, but having accepted it we are not free simply to abandon our post in Iraq, which is what Hillary and Obama want us to do. They believe (or profess to believe) that by doing so we will force the Sunni and Shiites to become friends. This seems to me a stunningly unrealistic expectation.
Then there is McCain’s proven ability to work “across the aisle.” The United States is badly polarized along ideological lines, red-state conservative ideologues versus blue-state liberal ideologues. McCain is not an ideologue, and he has a strong track record of defying the ultras of his own party. Hillary and Obama are not ideologues either. But Obama has no track record of defying Democratic ultras, and Hillary has only a slight record of doing so—I refer to her vote (which she’s been trying to explain away for the last year or two) giving George W. Bush permission to invade Iraq. If elected, neither of the two will be able to do much to mitigate the nation’s ideological divide, for they both have their feet firmly planted on one side of that divide. Obama is likely to lessen the nation’s racial divide, and to do this would be no small achievement; but the racial divide is no longer America’s number-one division.
Finally, there is McCain’s tough-minded patriotism. I don’t doubt that Hillary and Obama are patriots. I don’t even doubt that the upscale secularists who have taken over the Democratic Party are patriots; but theirs is a “soft” patriotism, a patriotism twice diluted, once with the waters of cosmopolitanism, and again with the waters of something tasting of pacifism. McCain, by contrast, is a “hard” patriot, not in the least a pacifist. But isn’t there a danger that a patriot of this stripe will prove to be a warmonger? Yes, some danger. But George Washington wasn’t a warmonger, and neither was Dwight Eisenhower, and neither, I think, is McCain. Retired warriors are willing to fight, but rarely do they yearn for another battle (think of Colin Powell).
At this confusing moment in history, a far greater danger, I submit, is to have the world’s most important nation led by a political sect (the Democratic ultras) whose patriotism is soft and whose commitment to a strong military is dubious. So two cheers for Senator McCain—and three loud raspberries for Democratic ultras!
This essay is part of the Issues 2008 series of commentaries on the important issues confronting the next president and Congress.
Related: Yes You Can: Why Catholics Don't Have to Vote Republican, by Gerald J. Beyer