When I read the Washington Post story on John McCain’s mad scheme to bolt the GOP and form a “centrist” third party, my first thought was: I’ve got Nostradamus beat. This, of course, is the typically self-referential mindset of any writer just so you’ll know that we can’t help ourselves. At any rate, waaaay back in the beginning of last year [February 2, 2000], right after the New Hampshire primary, I wrote:
“Regardless of whether or not Dubya ultimately wins the GOP presidential nomination, the Bush debacle in New Hampshire signals the break-up of the old Reagan coalition and presages the demise of the Republican Party. As I pointed out in a column on ‘the coming implosion of the Bush campaign,’ (I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so) the struggle for the soul of the Republican Party is now an internecine battle between the GOP left and the ultra-left, between a moderate Rockefeller Republican and a ‘progressive’ Republican of the Teddy Roosevelt school.”
THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD
So Team Bush waited until after the election to fall apart at the seams, but the main point was that
“. . . Dubya and his puffed-up advisors are being buffeted about by forces they cannot understand or control. As the candidate of the Republican center, Dubya’s sputtering campaign is proof that in the GOP, at least the center cannot hold. The Republican Left, led by McCain, is in the ascendant, and the Republican Right, led by Buchanan, is leaving en masse. This political turmoil is the first sign of the great realignment, a post-cold war shift in the political landscape that augurs an era of revolutionary change. In any seismic event of this magnitude there are bound to be a few casualties and if McCain makes it out to California, then it looks like the GOP may be the first one.”
MY CRYSTAL BALL
Okay, okay, so I wasn’t entirely correct: I was wrong about the impact of Buchanan’s campaign (even the greatest seers sometimes confuse will be with ought to be.) Perhaps my crystal ball was a little cloudy that day. But from where I’m sitting, it looks like my main prediction an imminent split in the GOP was correct. Only my timing was off. Oh, McCain is denying it, but, then again, the Washington Post piece never really reported that he was definitely leaving the GOP, only that he and his brain trust were discussing it. What is fascinating, however, is how this threat of a split almost perfectly maps the ideological fault-lines in the GOP as described above. According to the Post:
“McCain’s agenda, and that of a prospective McCain-led third party, is a hawkish foreign policy, domestic reform and a call for universal national service for young Americans. McCain sees each party held hostage by its base Democrats wedded to entitlements and Republicans dominated by corporate interests thus leaving room for a centrist populism.”
LEADING THE CHARGE
Of the three elements in this proposed platform, two (conscription and conquest) express the spirit of unabashed militarism that defines McCain’s public persona and “reform,” in a McCainian universe, is synonymous with centralized power, and inevitably takes on a militaristic aspect. The term “hawkish” does not quite do justice to the McCainiac foreign policy agenda: Iraq, the Balkans, Russia, the Far East no continent, it seemed during the primaries, was safe from his belligerent pronouncements. McCain made a point of declaring that all “rogue states” would feel the whiplash of American power, giving voters the impression that he would personally lead the troops into battle, like that blustering bully Theodore Roosevelt (whom he often invoked) charging up San Juan hill.
McCain not only attacked Clinton for failing to launch the ground war in Yugoslavia, but went so far as to appear on the same platform with the Albanian extremist Joe DioGuardi, whose Albanian-American Civic League was advocating the invasion of Macedonia long before it actually took place. DioGuardi has long represented the radical fringe of the KLA, which is like saying that someone belongs to the radical wing of the Mafia. A visit to AACL’s website confirms the, uh, distinctly aggressive program of DioGuardi & Co.: the front page consists of a map of Albania incorporating generous portions of Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece. It is safe to say that top McCain advisor Bill Kristol‘s infamous remark that we must “crush Serb skulls” accurately reflects what US policy in the Balkans will result in if President McCain ever occupies the Oval Office and it looks like the Macedonians and the Greeks will suffer a few broken bones as well.
KRISTOL AS SVENGALI
Speaking of Kristol, he appears to be the inspiration behind this media-driven third party boomlet. The Post piece is mostly a recounting of a breathless lunch that took place between the principal conspirators, including Kristol, campaign strategist John Weaver, legislative director Daniel McKivergan, and the omnipresent Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute. While noting that “a couple of McCain’s advisers have convinced themselves he could win the presidency in 2004 as a third-party candidate,” the Post avers that “others suggest that even if he lost, he could reshape politics more to his liking for years to come.” As crystallized by Kristol, this scenario, the Post reports, reads as follows:
“‘You have deadlock between the parties, and the ideological forces that drove the two parties are somewhat spent and exhausted,’ Kristol said. The conservative era that began with Richard Nixon is waning. “It feels like we’re at the end of this period in American politics.'”
Kristol’s conversion to McCain’s cause, you’ll remember, coincided with his widely-disdained obituary for the conservative movement, declaring that the Right was intellectually and politically “exhausted.” “Leaderless, rudderless and issueless, the conservative movement, which accomplished great things over the past quarter-century, is finished,” declared this grand strategist of the main chance, who latched on to McCain’s coattails, and, as Bill Rusher pointed out at the time, decided that he would found “a new ideology, one that would eventually replace conservatism.” Ever since then, Kristol and his editorial sidekick David Brooks, have been peddling their “national greatness conservatism” as a panacea for the nation’s ills and McCain is their chosen vehicle.
WAR PARTY ON WARPATH
Aside from building lots of national monuments I can just see that obelisk topped with a marble bust of Kristol casting its shadow on the White House lawn the main manifestation of this “greatness,” as far as Kristol is concerned, is war. He is, after all, the leading exponent of what he calls a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy bent on nothing less than “benevolent global hegemony”: Kristol once threatened to leave the GOP if Republicans in Congress stubbornly opposed the Kosovo war. Now, it seems, he is getting ready to carry out his promise, as Team Bush gets ready to bail out of Bosnia and shows signs of desperately wanting to do the same in Kosovo. But it isn’t just the Balkans: Colin Powell’s influence has neutralized the ultra-hawks in the administration on the China front (and every other front), and Kristol and his warmongering cabal are livid.
McCain’s meeting with Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle, officially billed as a tete-a-tete between two old friends, and the rumors that Republican Senator Lincoln Chaffee’s bolt from the GOP is considered imminent, are, for Kristol, the culmination of a dream: teaming up with Senator James Jeffords, the first post-election defector, the consolidation of a “centrist” caucus in the US Senate will provide the heart of the Kristol Party or, at least, its arms and shoulders.
It already has a head, not only in Kristol, but in a semi-official thinktank, the “Project for Conservative Reform” (PCR), the brainchild of the ubiquitous Marshall Wittmann. How is it that one ostensibly “conservative” pundit can get so many citations in the Washington Post? He even beats Kristol’s previous record. This is one "conservative" the liberals love to quote. The PCR website is adorned with a logo that affixes the image to Reagan to that of Teddy Roosevelt, and, although the content manages to combine the worst of both, clearly Wittmann identifies with the latter more than the former. He writes a column called “The Bull Moose” in which he excoriates the Republicans for stubbornly resisting the call to embrace his program of big government "national greatness," refers to himself as “the Moose,” and calls his (few but loyal) readers “Mooseketeers.” Isn’t that cute?
REFORMATION OR DEFORMATION?
But there is nothing particularly cute about Wittmann’s political agenda. His constant subjects are the themes embraced by McCain: more money for the military, more intervention abroad, more government, all presented as part of a necessary “reformation” of conservative ideology. Wittmann & Co. want to send conservatives to reform school. But no one is signing up for this transformative experience, since Kristol and the McCainites have completely discredited themselves on the Right along with their Lider Maximo and impatience seems to have gotten the better of them. So now they’re sending up this trial balloon, hoping against hope that it will take flight. Of course, it could be that McCain’s denials are true, and that he has no intention of setting up his own party. While not ruling out that eventuality, there’s always the option of mounting a primary challenge to President Bush in 2004, in which he could become the megaphone for the media’s constant complaint that Bush ran in the center and is governing from the right.
WORSHIPPING THE WAR GOD
In his panegyric to the idea of “national greatness,” Weekly Standard editor David Brooks opines that “it almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness,” but clearly war is the greatest source and symbol of greatness as far as these “reformers” are concerned. In a less grandiloquent, more concrete piece, in which he extols McCain as the Rooseveltian archetype that embodies the “national greatness” ideal, the remedy for a nation that has become “too bourgeois” and "soft," Brooks writes:
“These days McCain is most famous for his foreign policy views, especially his response to the war over Kosovo. Aside from his apparently millions of appearances on the talk shows, McCain has delivered two major foreign policy addresses of late-one in Kansas just before the Kosovo adventure got started, and one at a think tank in Washington on April 13. Taken together, they have a clear message: America’s moral destiny is wrapped up in its status as a superpower. If America ceases to assert itself as the democratic superpower, promoting self-government around the world, it will cease to be the America we love.
THE AMERICA WE LOVE
The America Brooks loves is not the America of the Founding Fathers, not the republic of his forefathers, but a bloated empire founded on none other than Madeleine Albright’s hubristic conceit of America as "the indispensable nation.” But don’t we all look forward to being citizens of the New Rome? Brooks can hardly believe it, but there are some dissenters: “You’d think all Americans would want their country to remain the world’s sole superpower,” he writes. “After all, the game theorists teach us that nations always seek to maximize their power.” It is true that governments are constantly seeking to maximize their power: to “national greatness” conservatives, however, the nation is the government (that is, the federal government), and therefore this kind of power lust is a good thing. But a few reactionaries, Brooks complains, just don’t see it that way:
“If you look around the op-ed pages, you discover that many are ambivalent. Many liberals believe that multilateral power is more ethical than American power. Many on the right believe that a superpower America means a Leviathan state that will trample on communities. Realists don’t like mixing morality and foreign policy, whereas isolationists see foreign policy as a one-way ratchet that can corrupt a nation’s values but never improves them.”
ALL IS VANITY
In short, we should’ve launched a ground war in the Balkans as a path to moral self-improvement. According to the prophets of National Greatness, we can starve the children of Iraq to death 5,000 per month and, instead of being corrupted, be improved: we should make war, not love, in order to reform our souls. This, in a nutshell, is the “national greatness” the McCainiacs aspire to: the greatness of the conqueror. The traditional conservative distrust of government, the idea of subsidiarity, the skeptical stance when it comes to remaking the world is here discarded and replaced by out-and-out state-worship. This is what animates Kristol, Wittmann, and their nascent movement: the spirit of vainglory. As such, it is a vehicle perfectly suited to McCain, whose self-regard borders on megalomania.
THE ROAD TO RUIN
As to whether “national greatness” conservatism or, at this point, “centrism” is an ideology that can mobilize an organized movement, and achieve some existence outside McCain’s media amen corner and Marshall Wittmann’s daydreams, remains to be seen. As far as the future of the GOP is concerned, what is clear is that McCain and, standing behind him, Kristol seems bent on a course of rule or ruin. As for the rest of us, a McCain victory “Mad John” in the White House would mean rule and ruin.