Conservatism, Mccain Style

John Mccain is no doubt not the first person who, late at night after a long day, has said something strange in the convivial atmosphere of the NASCAR cafe in Myrtle Beach. But what he said there on the eve of the voting in South Carolina suggests why he is doing so very much better among Democrats and independents than among Republicans. He said: "We can eradicate evil. We can eradicate differences between rich and poor." Well.

As to the first, it has been tried, often. For example, at the time of the French Revolution, some enthusiasts thought the job could be done by strangling the last king with the entrails of the last priest. The results were unsatisfactory, and Edmund Burke's articulation of what was wrong with such political overreaching became the modern genesis of what is called conservatism.

As for eradicating the "differences" between rich and poor--whatever that might mean--perhaps it would be prudent to defer attempting that eradication that until some more bite-size problems have been subdued. Besides, is egalitarianism, understood as equality of results instead of merely equality of opportunity, really desirable? Inequalities are intractable, particularly in a free society, because they arise from the unequal distribution of the capacities for adding economic value in society.

Now, a presidential nomination campaign is not a policy seminar. In the rough-and-tumble, truth gets the crease in its trousers wrinkled. Besides, policy is not now and may never be the point of the McCain phenomenon. Its point, which makes it unintelligible to some conservatives, is that Americans long to think well of Washington. Which is to say, 1994 was, politically speaking, a very long time ago.

In that year's thunderous elections that ended 40 years of Democratic control of the House elections, Republicans flourished by encouraging the country to think ill of Washington. In a sense, McCain does the same with his riffs about "big money" from "special interests" staining Washington. But McCain knows something that some conservatives, stuck in a 1994 mind-set, do not: his riffs resonate with Americans because they want Washington again to be what it first became in the 1920s and 1930s--a national icon.

In his splendid book "The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life," Michael Schudson of the University of California, San Diego, notes that in 1920 the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were removed from a State Department vault and in 1924 were put on display in the Library of Congress. In 1922 the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. In 1935 the Supreme Court, which had first met in the basement of the Capitol, and since 1860 had met in the old Senate chamber, at last got its own home, the temple-like building across the street from the Capitol. FDR laid the foundation stone of the Jefferson Memorial in 1939.

Schudson rightly says these were, and are, less monuments than shrines serving America's civic religion. As was the quintessentially American extravaganza that sculptor Gutzon Borglum, with President Calvin Coolidge's blessing, began carving on Mount Rushmore in 1927. At about this time Henry Ford built Greenfield Village and John D. Rockefeller Jr. launched the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.

Here, then, is a pretty paradox. McCain's conservative credentials are being questioned because he is ascending with the help of a lot of people who are not conservatives. They are attracted to him not just by his biography and the sheer fun he brings to politics, but also by his unconservative enthusiasm for additional government regulation of political speech and for the bogus crusade to force tobacco companies to pay reparations to government, which actually makes money from smoking. Nevertheless, what also is propelling McCain is a core conservative value, patriotism, expressed in a desire to make Washington more loved by making it more lovely.

It is not that liberals are unpatriotic, only that conservatives, more than liberals, are inclined to dwell on the country's virtues rather than its flaws. The rise of conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s was partly the result of conservatives' success in the fundamental game of American politics--the game of capture the flag. Liberalism came to seem ambivalent about waving the flag. Liberals, full-throated about America's defects (imperialism, racism, sexism, planet-wrecking consumption, and so on, and on), seemed to have more enthusiasm for the national government than for the nation. Indeed, they seemed to want a large government primarily because only such a government would be commensurate with the task of correcting the nation's gross defects.

It is instructive to compare McCain's broad-brush campaign themes with the themes of the other insurgent candidate.

Fueled by the kind of hope that defines political desperation--the hope that a win in the Washington state primary, a beauty contest that allocates no delegates, would cause his wilted candidacy to revive like a flower in a spring shower--Bill Bradley descended on Seattle with the banner of liberalism unfurled. He criticized the Clinton administration for failing to build public support for the Kyoto Protocol on measures to combat global warming--a pact that would impose such costs on the United States that there is approximately zero support for it in the Senate. Bradley also invoked the cause that stirs some of today's liberals the way peace, disarmament, full employment and civil rights stirred earlier generations of liberals--the crusade to save the planet from Americans' sport utility vehicles. Bradley wants tougher fuel-efficiency standards.

Bradley has had a hard time making himself heard because of the commotion surrounding McCain's successes, but Bradley might be even worse off if he were being heard. He has taken to calling Al Gore a conservative. The charge is nutty, but has Bradley noticed that Gore does not exactly deny it?

Join the Discussion