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Do we need another T.R.?

Matt Welch is assistant editor of the editorial pages of The Times. matt.welch@latimes.com

YOU CAN READ 1,000 profiles of GOP presidential front-runner John McCain without encountering a single paragraph examining his core ideological philosophy. His career is filled with such distracting drama -- torture at the Hanoi Hilton, noisy conversion to the campaign-finance-reform faith, political suicide on the Straight Talk Express -- that by the time you’re done with the highlights, and perhaps a few “maverick” anecdotes, time’s up.

People are forever filling in the blanks with their own political fantasies. Third party candidate! John Kerry running mate! Far-right warmonger! Republican In Name Only! But with the announcement that the popular Arizona senator has formed his presidential exploratory committee, it’s time for our long national guessing game to end.

Sifting through McCain’s four bestselling books and nearly three decades of work on Capitol Hill, a distinct approach toward governance begins to emerge. And it’s one that the electorate ought to be particularly worried about right now. McCain, it turns out, wants to restore your faith in the U.S. government by any means necessary, even if that requires thousands of more military deaths, national service for civilians and federal micromanaging of innumerable private transactions. He’ll kick down the doors of boardroom and bedroom, mixing Democrats’ nanny-state regulations with the GOP’s red-meat paternalism in a dangerous brew of government activism. And he’s trying to accomplish this, in part, for reasons of self-realization.

The first clue to McCain’s philosophy lies in two seemingly irrelevant items of gossip: His father was a drunk, and his second wife battled addiction to pain pills. Neither would be worth mentioning except for the fact that McCain’s books and speeches are shot through with the language and sentiment of 12-step recovery, especially Steps 1 (admitting the problem) and 2 (investing faith in a “Power greater than ourselves”).

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Like many alcoholics who haven’t quite made it to Step 6 (becoming “entirely ready” to have these defects removed), McCain is disarmingly talented at admitting his narcissistic flaws. In his 2002 book “Worth the Fighting For,” the senator is constantly confessing his problems of “selfishness,” “immaturity,” “ambition” and especially “temper,” though he also makes clear that his outbreaks of anger can be justifiable and even laudable when channeled into “a cause greater than self-interest.”

“A rebel without a cause is just a punk,” he explains. “Whatever you’re called -- rebel, unorthodox, nonconformist, radical -- it’s all self-indulgence without a good cause to give your life meaning.”

What is this higher power that ennobles McCain’s crankiness? Just as it is for many soldiers, it’s the belief that Americans “were meant to transform history” and that sublimating the individual in the service of that “common national cause” is the wellspring of honor and purpose. (But unlike most soldiers, McCain has been in a position to prod and even compel civilians to join his cause.)

Liberals and conservatives alike fail to truly reflect his views, McCain writes, because “neither emphasizes the obligations of a free people to the nation.” His main governmental inspiration is Teddy Roosevelt, the “Eastern swell who became a man of the people,” whose great accomplishment was “to summon the American people to greatness.” In Roosevelt’s code, McCain writes approvingly, it was “absolutely required that every loyal citizen take risks for the country’s sake.” This is an essentially militaristic view of citizenship, one that explains many of McCain’s departures from partisan orthodoxy. Unlike traditional Republicans, he will gladly butt into the affairs of private industry if he perceives them to be undermining Americans’ faith in government; unlike Democrats, he thinks the executive branch generally needs more power, not less.

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“Our greatness,” he wrote in “Worth the Fighting For,” “depends upon our patriotism, and our patriotism is hardly encouraged when we cannot take pride in the highest public institutions.” So, because steroids might be damaging the faith of young baseball fans, drug testing becomes a “transcendent issue,” requiring threats of federal intervention unless pro sports leagues shape up. Hollywood’s voluntary movie-rating system? A “smoke screen to provide cover for immoral and unconscionable business practices.” Ultimate Fighting on Indian reservations? “Barbaric” and worthy of government pressure on cable TV companies. Negative political ads by citizen groups? They “do little to further beneficial debate and healthy political dialogue” and so must be banned for 60 days before an election if they mention a candidate by name.

If his issues line up with yours, and if you’re not overly concerned by an activist federal government, McCain can be a great and sympathetic ally. But chances are he will eventually see a grave national threat in what you consider harmless, or he’ll prescribe a remedy that you consider unconscionable. Nowhere is that more evident than in his ideas about the Iraq war.

McCain has been banging the drum from nearly Day One to put more boots on the ground in Iraq. “There are a lot of things that we can do to salvage this,” he said on “Meet the Press” on Nov. 12, “but they all require the presence of additional troops.” McCain is more inclined to start wars and increase troop levels than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. He has supported every U.S. military intervention of the last two decades, urged both presidents to rattle their sabers louder over North Korea and Iran, lamented the Pentagon’s failure to intervene in Darfur and Rwanda and supported a general policy of “rogue state rollback.” He’s a fan of Roosevelt’s Monroe-Doctrine-on-steroids stick-wielding in Latin America. And -- like Bush -- he thinks too much multilateralism can screw up a perfectly good war.

The price of all this war-making, in money and manpower, would be staggering; it’s hard to imagine without a draft (McCain has long been a fan of mandatory national service, at the least). But the costs to his political ambitions may even be greater. The nation is in no mood for the war we’ve got now, let alone a doubling-down on Iraq and ramped-up unilateralist tough talk in the Middle East. The trend lines of public opinion on these counts are not pointing in McCain’s direction.

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One of the many charming confessions in “Worth the Fighting For” is McCain’s complaint that the man he replaced in the Senate -- Republican icon Barry Goldwater -- was “never as affectionate as I would have liked.” Small wonder.

Goldwater, a man who seemed to emanate from Arizona’s dust, was the paragon of limited government, believing to his core that the feds shouldn’t tell you how to run a business or whom you can sleep with. McCain, on the other hand, is a third-generation D.C. insider who carpetbagged his way into office, believing to his core that “national pride will not survive the people’s contempt for government.” On Nov. 7, those conflicting worldviews collided when Arizonans voted on whether to outlaw gay marriage. McCain campaigned in favor of the ban, in the name of “preserving the sanctity” of heterosexual unions. His exhortations went down to surprising defeat. Not, one suspects, for the last time.


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