Friday, December 7, 2007

Endorsing John McCain

The Lexington column at The Economist offers an endorsement of John McCain for the GOP presidential nomination:

THERE are all sorts of reasons to be puzzled by the state of today's Republican Party. How did the party of fiscal responsibility become the party of out-of-control spending? How did a party that prided itself on its foreign-policy skills become the author of the fiasco in Iraq? But from the narrow point of view of the election, an even more pressing question arises: how did the Republicans lose their ability to spot star power?

A month before the primaries the Republicans have no idea whom to nominate. Rudy Giuliani? He's ahead in the national polls, but he lags in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire; and many social conservatives hate him. Mitt Romney? He's ahead in New Hampshire, but he lags in national polls. And what about Mike Huckabee? The latest poll in Iowa shows the preacher from Hope, Arkansas, leading the pack there. No one can predict the outcome with any confidence, since no fewer than five candidates are getting between 10% and 25% of the Republican vote. This confusion is odd for two reasons. The first is that it is the Democrats who are supposed to be the disorganised party. The second is that the Republicans seem intent on ignoring the political star in their ranks. That man is John McCain.

Mr McCain is such a familiar figure that it is easy to forget how remarkable he is. He fought heroically in Vietnam, spending more than five years as a prisoner-of-war, when many other politicians of his generation discovered, like Dick Cheney, that they had “other priorities”. He has repeatedly risked his political career by backing unpopular causes.

Mr McCain's qualifications extend beyond character. Take experience. His range of interests as a senator has been remarkable, extending from immigration to business regulation. He knows as much about foreign affairs and military issues as anybody in public life. Or take judgment. True, he has a reputation as a hothead. But he's a hothead who cools down. He does not nurse grudges or agonise about vast conspiracies like some of his colleagues in the Senate. He has also been right about some big issues. He was the first senior Republican to criticise George Bush for invading Iraq with too few troops, and the first to call for Donald Rumsfeld's sacking. He is one of the few Republicans to propose sensible policies on immigration and global warming.

Mr McCain's qualities are particularly striking if you contrast him with his leading rivals. His willingness to stick to his guns on divisive subjects such as immigration stands in sharp contrast to Mr Romney's oily pandering. Mr Romney likes to claim that his views on topics such as gay rights and abortion have “evolved”. But they have evolved in a direction that is strikingly convenient—perhaps through intelligent design. Can a party that mocked John Kerry really march into battle behind their very own Massachusetts flip-flopper?

Mr Giuliani gets good marks for character. His record as mayor of New York bespeaks toughness. His performance on September 11th 2001 proves that he can take charge in a crisis. But what about judgment? He chose Bernard Kerik to run the NYPD, made him a partner in his consultancy, and persuaded the White House to nominate him as head of the Department of Homeland Security. Mr Kerik is now facing serious corruption charges. The Democrats will be happy to remind people of other lapses in Mr Giuliani's judgment if he wins the nomination.

The weakness of the two front-runners is persuading many Republicans to turn to Mr Huckabee. Mr Huckabee is indeed an attractive candidate—a good debater and a charming fellow. But he is woefully lacking in experience. He knows next to nothing about foreign and military affairs, and his tax plans are otherworldly. A presidential debate between Mr Huckabee and Hillary Clinton would be a rout.

So why have so many Republicans written off Mr McCain? There are two reasons—one bad, the other more reasonable. The bad reason is that they worry that he is not really one of them. Mr McCain has broken with Republican orthodoxy on everything from tax cuts to campaign finance to immigration. But look at his record more closely and you discover that he is a Republican in good standing. His fights with his fellow Republicans have been driven by his (usually justified) conviction that they were betraying Republican principles. He opposed Mr Bush's tax cuts because he thought they would create a deficit. He led the charge against pork-barrel spending and lobbyists such as Jack Abramoff because he thought they undermined the principle of small government. Immigration is a genuine problem: he is seriously at odds with the bulk of his party on the issue, though many independents would go with his plan.

The more persuasive reason for worrying about Mr McCain is his age. The senior senator for Arizona will be 72 if he takes office in January 2009—two years older than Ronald Reagan when he was inaugurated. But Mr McCain is an extraordinarily energetic 70-year-old, far more full of beans than many younger candidates. (“My philosophy is to just go, go like hell,” he says. “Full bore.”) The American constitution also provides an insurance mechanism against presidential death or illness. Provided Mr McCain chooses a sound vice-president, his many positive qualities outweigh worries about his age.

There are signs that Republicans are swallowing their doubts about Mr McCain. He is gaining some momentum in New Hampshire (he is barely campaigning in Iowa because he has long ridiculed the absurd ethanol subsidies with which many farmers there line their pockets). The New Hampshire Union Leader gave him a ringing endorsement this week. He is creeping back up the polls nationally, and is now coming second to Mr Giuliani. Republicans need to keep swallowing. Mr McCain is surely worth another look.
I probably wouldn't beat up on Romney and the others as much as Lexington, but I don't doubt McCain's the one for the GOP in 2008.

See also my earlier post on the New Hampshire Union-Leader's McCain endorsement.


UPDATE: This morning's Wall Street Journal suggests McCain's sparkling in New Hampshire.