Friday, May 24, 2013

Explaining John McCain

Jonathan Chait considers John McCain's career, on the occasion of McCain's recent Tea Party bashing and immigration bipartisanship, and concludes that it's all about national security:

The basic way to understand McCain is that neoconservative foreign policy is his ideological core. Everything else about his ideology can shift radically depending on his ambitions, circumstances, and whom he’s most angry with at any given moment. He favored immigration reform under George W. Bush, abandoned it to refashion himself as a “build the dang fence” border hawk, and, in the wake of last November, embraced it again...

But the foreign policy hawkishness has remained constant. 
Perhaps. I personally subscribe to the other theory: it's a combination of electoral incentives and personal vendettas.

What we need is for a neocon to pick a fight with McCain (to see if he'll go dovish as a reaction) or for some electoral situation in which hawks are at a disadvantage. I don't think either of those has ever happened in his career, or at least I don't think he's perceived belligerence in foreign affairs to be an electoral negative.

What both theories have in common is the idea that McCain is largely indifferent about policy at least of outside of national security and foreign affairs. Well, indifferent isn't quite right...McCain can be quite passionate about all sorts of issues while he's engaged in them; it just doesn't seem to be based on any kind of consistent ideology, or even a consistent view on the specific issue.

I am wondering how McCain's push for reconciliation with Vietnam counts here. I'd argue that it cuts against Chait's theory and in favor for everything being either electoral or, in this case, personal. I'd also argue that his relatively moderate position on the Chuck Hagel nomination fits my theory better; McCain opposed the first cloture vote and final confirmation, but he provided the key vote for cloture in the second cloture vote. Perhaps because he was more annoyed with Ted Cruz than he was loyal to the neocons. But neither of these is anywhere near conclusive.

Anyone else have examples that can help resolve this one?


  1. Not an example, but a counterfactual: I suspect that if Romney had beaten McCain for the 2008 nomination and gone on to lose to Obama, McCain would have become one of the more gettable Republican votes in the Senate.

  2. He agreed with Obama on closing Guantanamo, and he has opposed torture fairly consistently (although that's personal). It often seems that he's never seen a conflict that he didn't want to intervene in, as in Syria. He differed with Obama over Libya but only because Obama wasn't intervening enough. Yet, to my knowledge, he's never advocated intervening in Sudan or the Congo. Maybe he just doesn't like Africa, or maybe it's just that no one has ever brought it up in his presence.

    1. Re: Torture, McCain flip-flopped and embraced the Bush Administration's use of torture. He opposed the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act because he felt it handcuffed the CIA too much and might prevent them from torturing enemy combatants.

      I think the singular worst point of John McCain's career was the 2008 Republican convention. The Bush Administration tortured captured enemies. McCain himself was subject to similar treatment in Vietnam. But McCain's people couldn't say that he was tortured -- that would be seen as an attack on the Bush Administration and the pro-torture policies Bush and McCain supported.

  3. I like Monje's point about Africa, but that just raises the additional question of: do neocons just care about the Middle East?

    I googled "john mccain kosovo" hoping to find some more answers but instead got a speech he gave where he argued that we need more debate in the Senate over American intervention and didn't bother to take a side on whether American intervention was good or bad.

    It did however given credence to the "crank factor" by including passages like:

    " It seems to me that the President, in his poll driven approach to his every responsibility, fails to distinguish the office he holds from himself. And some of us in Congress are so distrustful of the President that we feel obliged to damage the office in order to restrain the current occupant. Both sides have lost the ability to tell the office from the man.

    Publicly and repeatedly ruling out ground troops may be smart politics according to the President's pollster, but it is inexcusably irresponsible leadership. In his determination to put politics over national security, the President even acquiesced to the other body's attempt to deprive him of his office's authority. He sent a letter
    promising that he would seek Congress' permission to introduce ground troops in the unlikely event he ever discovers the will to use them."

    Not the lack of discussion about Kosovo.

    1. Hmm. That part about ground troops in Kosovo sort of parallels the "not intervening enough" argument on Libya. It does seem that there was talk of moving troops into Albania, right across the border, just before the Serbs gave up.

  4. Oh, he's definitely not Middle East only. Remember when we were all Georgians? (Presumably we are still Georgians, as the Russian occupation continues in much of the country.)

    A quick web search says Johnny strove to disagree with Clinton on both Bosnia and Kosovo. On Bosnia, Clinton intervened so cautiously that we barely had an impact, and McCain played the dove denouncing Clinton's recklessness. On Kosovo, Clinton intervened more forcefully, and McCain tried to outhawk him. So McCain's pretty all over the place on two pretty similar conflicts close together in time and space. I don't know too much about the political climate (before my time), but I think the Reps overall were mostly dovish on both, in order to maximize their ability to denounce Clinton, but switched to being more hawkish on Kosovo once the U.S. started bombing. The neocons specifically were hawkish on both.

    So this seems like evidence in favor of Jon's view. If McCain were a genuine neocon he should have supported air strikes in Bosnia. But if he's just an opportunist then sticking with the Reps to oppose intervention in Bosnia makes sense.

    1. Interesting. In the '90s, you had a partial reversal on questions of intervention. The Cold War was over, and liberals who had opposed intervention for years (which often would have been intervention on behalf of right-wing governments against local guerrilla forces) now advocated intervention on humanitarian grounds to stop massacres in places like Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Conservatives, or at least some of them, objected to getting involved in wars for do-gooder purposes instead of national interest. (Of course, in Iraq, when WMD couldn't be found, it retroactively became a war for democracy in the Middle East. That argument had come up previously, but it hadn't been a major part of the call for war.)

  5. Aah, Bernstein & Chait are both right. McCain is a whirling mass of anger & resentment. (And maybe others of us would be, too, if we had spent our best years in cages.) Any effort to locate reasonable explanations for his mercurial swings left, right & center will be frustrated, because the causes are emotional rather than reasonable. This, more than his ideology -- whatever it is -- is why he would have been a disastrous president.

    The Constant Weader at

  6. Hey John have more than one constituent, meaning Hensley Beverage Company. Of course they will benefit from your stance on immigration and Obamacare. You are so transparent, but then, most people aren't aware of your connection to the Hensley family...Cindy HENSLEY McCain. Now that was a marriage made in a boardroom! Can't post my name as I live in Arizona and don't want the IRS set upon me.


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