McCain: The Myth of a Maverick by Matt Welch

Why would a book about John McCain’s political views still be relevant?

The fight for the GOP’s future is being waged amongst tea party conservatives, establishment Republicans, and a growing libertarian wing (with certain figures overlapping these loosely defined factions). One faction doesn’t receive as much publicity at the moment, but is still prominent and could once again take the GOP helm: national-greatness conservatism. This is John McCain’s brand of Republican politics. Knowing what distinguishes this brand from the others will be important if a liberty-minded movement has any chance to move the needle in the Republican Party. Matt Welch’s 2007 book, McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, provides a solid roadmap to understanding McCain and the broader national-greatness ideology.

Drawing upon his personal experiences in Vietnam, the narratives of both his real-life and fictional heroes, the insights of neo-conservative magazine The Weekly Standard (which popularized the term “national-greatness conservatism”), and arguably the foundations of 12-step recovery programs, Senator McCain’s political aspirations were molded into a recurring theme: “a cause greater than our own self-interest.” And that greater cause? American nationalism.

McCain’s “greater cause” envisions pride in our public institutions and “patriotism” before “profit.” In terms of domestic policy, the “greater cause” translated to McCain’s past support for tobacco taxes, mandatory drug testing of professional athletes, a “Patients Bill of Rights,” closing the so-called “gun-show loophole,” and, perhaps most famously, campaign finance reform. It also explained his opposition to the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.

The greatest implications of McCain-style national-greatness conservatism are in the realm of national security. The “greater cause” embraces rogue-state rollback, an affirmation of America as the world’s policeman, and expanded powers for the executive branch. The Bush-Obama years have essentially carried out the McCain doctrine: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the unauthorized war in Libya, indiscriminate drone strikes, and an unaccountable surveillance apparatus. Yes, Hussein and Gaddafi are dead. But so are thousands of Americans and Middle Eastern civilians. Unchecked surveillance made criminals of innocent Americans. Is our country in better shape because of this?

The book isn’t an entire repudiation of Senator McCain. Welch praises McCain for tackling pork-barrel spending, immigration reform, and his service in Vietnam. But Welch calls the senator to task for politically-expedient flip-flopping on issues such as ethanol subsidies and the Bush tax cuts. Welch also provides analysis of McCain’s relationship with the media and his predecessor, iconic conservative Barry Goldwater.

Taken as a whole, the book shows Senator McCain’s proclivity towards an authoritarianism that is contrary to “the nation that made ‘the pursuit of happiness’ a foundational aspiration.” It’s a tendency that is still alive and well in the Republican Party. Whether the liberty movement can truly change the direction of the GOP remains to be seen.

Recommended read. A truncated version of the book can be found here.

Bonus link: the Straight Talk Express gets derailed by David Letterman.

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