When Personality Morphs Into Policy

David Brooks is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. He is the author of "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There," due out in May

We don’t know where Arizona Sen. John McCain’s campaign will land, but we can pinpoint when it took off. About a year ago, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosovic was cleansing Kosovo of ethnic Albanians. There were reports of massacres and gang rapes and forced marches. The Clinton administration was gearing up to do something about it. The House Republicans were at cross purposes--pretty sure that whatever President Bill Clinton did, they’d be against it. Texas Gov. George W. Bush did the politically prudent thing--and disappeared off the radar screen. Among Republicans, only McCain rushed to declare himself. He criticized the way Clinton was taking us into Kosovo. But he argued vehemently that the world’s superpower could not stand by as civilization unraveled in the middle of Europe.

Suddenly, McCain was being quoted all over. He emerged as the most prominent GOP voice on foreign affairs. As the Carnegie Endowment’s Robert Kagan noted, Kosovo was the first primary and McCain won it.

McCain has traction on foreign affairs because of his war record, but this was a policy victory. And that’s worth remembering now, when McCain is surging, because many people see his rise as a triumph of character over policy. The Bushies and their allies insist he’s just a war hero thriving on the anti-Clinton vote.

Now, there is a lot of truth to that. McCain plays up his war record, as all veterans do, and it draws people. His character is so vivid, it tends to obliterate his programs and ideas. Furthermore, no one will take McCain for a policy wonk. Back when he had free time, he would read short stories and history books, not policy tomes, and his domestic programs are not as well developed as Bush’s.


Nor is McCain an ideological person. You can press him all you want on the back of his campaign bus, but you cannot draw him into a discussion about philosophy or political theory. As P.J. O’Rourke observes, he used to land planes on aircraft carriers. People who do something that counterintuitive don’t indulge in long deliberations.

But McCain wouldn’t be doing so well if he were just a war hero. Former Senate Majority Leader and GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole was a hero, and he never generated this kind of enthusiasm. What McCain has is a coherent approach to governing. He has been able to translate his virtues--honor, candor and courage--into a political agenda that requires those virtues. So there is a governing philosophy, “McCainism,” even if he is himself unable to explain what it is.

McCainism starts with patriotism. We’re all patriotic, but for McCain it is at the center of his life. He titled his memoir “Faith of My Fathers"--America is his faith-based institution. On the stump, he describes his book as the story of three flawed individuals (his grandfather, father and himself) who found “redemption” in service to a cause larger than themselves: their country. Note the religious language. McCain, like the rest of us, is always struggling with selfishness. Patriotism is his antidote. This has policy implications. In fact, it leads to the four pillars of McCainism:

1. Use government to confront selfish interests. If you look back over his public career, you see that it is a series of confrontations with groups who, McCain feels, have put their own selfish interests above the national interest. He attacked the tobacco companies because he thought they were poisoning kids, lying to Congress and putting their own profits over America’s needs. For similar reasons, he attacks the “special interests” in Washington, the ethanol subsidizers and the congressional pork-barrelers. When he got caught up in the Keating Five scandal a few years ago, he found himself succumbing to the temptations of the system. That fired his combative zeal.


President Theodore Roosevelt, McCain’s hero, used to go after the “malefactors of great wealth,” but the living politician McCain most resembles is New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose career is also a series of confrontations. As in Giuliani’s case, this method is confusing when judged by the normal ideological categories. Sometimes the targets of McCain’s attack are on the right, sometimes they are on the left. Sometimes he is better at identifying targets than crafting legislative remedies. But if he were president, this is how he would use the power of his office. He would attack selfish interests (as he saw them), whether lobbyists or teachers unions or pork-barrelers.

2. Reform government to combat cynicism. The central sentence of the McCain campaign was in a speech at Johns Hopkins last year: “We have a new patriotic challenge for a new century: declaring war on the cynicism that threatens our public institutions, our culture and, ultimately, our private happiness.” That is why he is so obsessed by campaign-finance reform. He thinks Americans will never be good citizens if campaigns are sleazy. That’s also why McCain wants to use so much of the surplus to pay down the debt rather than cut taxes. He argues that government made promises to future retirees, and if people are to believe in government, it must keep its promises. “You might think people would say about the surplus, ‘Give me my money back,’ ” McCain says, “but people like you say we have an obligation to the next generation of Americans. Let’s pay down the debt. . . . It’s a sense of unselfishness.”

3. Reform the welfare state and the regulatory bodies to keep America forever young. As a member and then chairman of the Commerce Committee, McCain has created a distinct style. Half the time he will be bashing businessmen for acting selfishly. But the other half he will be bashing regulators for stifling innovation or exercising anti-democratic power. McCain constantly invokes Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan and, occasionally, John F. Kennedy. These were all vigorous men, who used government to help create a more vigorous country. He is a staunch deregulator because he believes only a lightly regulated economy will be vibrant. He supports legal immigration because immigrants invigorate the nation. He is not well-versed in most domestic-policy reforms, but he has staked out aggressive positions on school choice and Social Security privatization as ways to break up sclerotic systems and replace them with youthful, vigorous ones.

4. Use American might abroad to champion democracy and freedom. McCain loves talking about foreign affairs. In many ways, he clearly longs for the days of the Cold War, when the presidency was a foreign-affairs-dominated institution, when leaders were called on to play power politics to a great extent. He has a lofty and somewhat grand vision of the job.


Those days of nuclear brinkmanship are over, but still, more than the other candidates, he embraces America’s role as a superpower. He rails against what he calls social-policy foreign policy, such as our intervention in Haiti, but, as in Kosovo, he believes in using U.S. might to confront enemies who threaten American values. Even in the debate in South Carolina, where there is much isolationist sentiment, he promoted a policy he calls “rogue-state rollback.” He believes it is not enough to just try to contain dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Milosovic. The U.S. should actively support indigenous forces to undermine their regimes. Here, too, he is following his hero, Roosevelt, who believed in using American might to defend Judeo-Christian values.

For the past few years, conservatives have been trying to remoralize American culture. McCain has a similar goal but a different approach. The conservative establishment has, since the emergence of the Christian conservative movement, used religious language on moral and cultural matters. Its great foe is sin. McCain openly confesses his own sins, especially during his first marriage. Instead, he uses patriotic and secular language on moral and cultural issues. His great foe is selfishness. He doesn’t talk much about the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, but he always mentions Clinton’s renting out of the Lincoln bedroom, and the rest of the 1996 fund-raising scandals.

He has found a way to talk about morality that doesn’t make him seem censorious or prudish. In doing so, he has found--or perhaps it is more accurate to say stumbled onto--a policy approach that would project his personal character onto the national character.