Why Is John McCain Running Against Robert A. Taft?

by , February 21, 2008

John McCain loves reporters, and the feeling is mutual: after all, he’s great copy, has a fantastic narrative, and is always eager to make their jobs easier by giving them plenty of good quotes to chew over. The latest installment of the longest love affair in American politics appears in the New Yorker, in Ryan Lizza’s "On the Bus," wherein McCain talks about everything under the sun: the campaign ("I just had my interrogation on Russert. It’s a good thing I had all that preparation in North Vietnam!"); his recent contretemps over the Iraq "timetable" issue with Romney; and what he’s reading these days – David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter, an account of the Korean War and the politics surrounding the darkest days of the Cold War.

"It’s beautifully done. It’s not just about the war, but it’s a very good description, whether you agree with it or not, of the political climate at that time – the split in the Republican Party between the Taft wing and the Eisenhower wing, and Harry Truman’s incredible relationship with MacArthur. At least half the book is about the political situation in the United States during that period – the isolationism, who lost China, the whole political dynamic. That’s what I think makes it well worth reading."

McCain has "isolationism" on his mind, as well he might: over 60 percent of the American people want out of Iraq, and they have no appetite for the new wars that McCain clearly sees on the horizon. Indeed, in a recent outburst he declared:

“It’s a tough war we’re in. It’s not going to be over right away. There’s going to be other wars. I’m sorry to tell you, there’s going to be other wars. We will never surrender but there will be other wars. And right now – we’re gonna have a lot of PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] to treat, my friends. We’re gonna have a lot of combat wounds that have to do with these terrible explosive IEDs that inflict such severe wounds. And my friends, it’s gonna be tough, we’re gonna have a lot to do.”

Ah, but some people don’t see this horror as inevitable – those dreaded "isolationists," whom McCain hates and fears. As Lizza puts it: "McCain has decided that it’s the isolationists – a group that he defines broadly, and which includes the Left and the Right – who are the real threat."

Of course, there is no such creature as an "isolationist": no one advocates putting the U.S. in a box, cutting off trade and cultural relations with the rest of the world, and going the way of the Hermit Kingdom. "Isolationist" is a vintage smear word, used by the War Party since time immemorial to characterize its opponents as addle-brained cranks. Any and all advocates of a non-militaristic policy of peaceful engagement with the world will inevitably be tarred with the I-word, and there’s no way around it. The War Party, with its media connections and virtual monopoly on mainstream outlets, will see to that.

McCain, whose symbiotic relationship with the media fueled his rise to prominence, is counting on this to position himself as the latter-day Harry Truman, the valiant crusader against the forces of Isolationism and Reaction. He is right, however, about the real danger to his presidential prospects: not the mythical creature of "isolationism," but the very real rising tide of anti-interventionism, i.e., opposition to our foreign policy of relentless aggression. One can see, here, the outsized impact Ron Paul‘s presidential campaign has had – because the Paulians certainly have McCain spooked:

"One afternoon, McCain talked about his surprise at the resurrection of this element in his party, which has been particularly visible in the candidacy of the libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul. ‘We had a debate in Iowa. I mean, it was, like, last summer, one of the first debates we had. It was raining, and I’m standing there in the afternoon, it was a couple of hours before the debate,’ McCain said. ‘And I happen to look out the window. Here’s a group of fifty people in the rain, shouting "Ron Paul! Ron Paul!"’ McCain banged on the table with both fists and chanted as he imitated the Paul enthusiasts. ‘I thought, Holy sh*t, what’s going on here? I mean, go to one of these debates. Drive up. Whose signs do you see? I’m very grateful – they’ve been very polite. I recognize them and say thanks for being here. They haven’t disrupted the events. But he has tapped a vein.’"

Yes, he has, hasn’t he? A record-making fundraising effort initiated entirely by volunteers, a youth movement that is sweeping the campuses if not the polling booths, and a lot of respectful attention (and some of it not so respectful). As a politician, McCain can’t help but be impressed – and more than a little anxious.

The ghost of Robert A. Taft scares the bejesus out of the man who would be the second coming of Teddy Roosevelt. As well it should, for, despite the jeers of Ross Douthat, who notes that Paul hasn’t topped 10 percent in most of the primaries, Paul has clearly won the intellectual debate, even if he didn’t get the votes. Paul’s critique of interventionism, and the entire system of debt-funded militarism, struck a chord with a highly motivated cadre of activists, as well as the more thoughtful sectors of the commentariat. That’s what really impressed McCain: you didn’t see hundreds of McCainiacs demonstrating in the rain outside the debates, yelling their candidate’s name. This is precisely the enthusiasm and energy that’s missing from the GOP these days, and McCain must envy Paul the dedication of his "isolationist" followers.

How to explain it? It couldn’t possibly be that they’re tired of sacrificing lives, both American and Iraqi, in order to ensure a victory at the end of what McCain anticipates will be a "100 year" occupation. It’s inconceivable that, at a cost of $1 trillion and mounting, they don’t believe it’s worth it. And it’s downright impossible they take seriously the wisdom of the Founders, "isolationists" all, who disdained "entangling alliances" and warned against militarism and overseas adventurism. What moves the Paulians, in McCain’s mind, is, as he explains to Lizza:

"’A combination of isolationism, the old part of our party, and the conspiracy. You know’ – McCain lowered his head and spoke in a mock-confiding voice – ‘We have made an important discovery: the headquarters for the organization that’s going to merge three countries into one – Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. – is in Kansas City!’"

McCain is here referring to the so-called "NAFTA superhighway," which right-wing populists claim is part of a larger project to create a "North American Union," consisting of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, all hitched to a single currency (the "amero"). Paul has raised this issue, much to the chagrin of liberal and neoconservative pundits, who mock the concept as a typical "paranoid" "conspiracy theory," with no basis in fact. For my own part, it sounds all too believable: a typical bureaucratic creation of tax-funded idlers, who spend their "work" days constructing completely unrealizable castles in the air. If I were McCain, though, I wouldn’t bring this up. After all, he was the one who signed on to the amnesty immigration bill, which, in practice, would have abolished the border between the U.S. and Mexico and effected a de facto merger. Forget the North American Union – the amnesty bill, all by itself, would have accomplished the same goal.

McCain’s linking of anti-interventionism to other issues, such as free trade and immigration, is a canard. One could conceivably advocate the creation of a North American Union and oppose our militaristic foreign policy. Just look at Louis Bromfield, the popular novelist and screenwriter of the 1930s and ’40s, whose 1954 polemic, A New Pattern for a Tired World, advocated the merger of the entire Western hemisphere while also opposing the schemes of those "Americans suffering from what might best be described as a ‘Messiah complex,’ who feel a compulsion to save the world and constantly to meddle in the affairs of other peoples and nations, regardless of whether, as is more and more the case, this interference is actually resented."

As the Cold War started to freeze the international landscape into competing blocs, Bromfield argued that "our policies and actions are determined by a strange mixture of hazy impractical idealism and of militarism promoted by a campaign of calculated fear."

A more prescient vision of things to come would be hard to imagine. Bromfield saw the future and fought against it, not in the name of "isolationism," but in the cause of a merciless realism. He foresaw the neoconservative pipe-dream of exporting "democracy" at gunpoint, and saw, furthermore, how it would end:

"These problems … cannot be solved by the arbitrary bestowal or imposition of political ‘democracy’ with the touch of a fairy wand, or by brutal assault of tanks and guns upon peoples who have little conception or understanding of or even words in their languages for democracy, freedom, liberty, and human dignity."

Bromfield was of that tribe so feared by McCain, a Taft Republican who once held a rally for the three-time GOP presidential candidate on the front lawn of his large Ohio estate. That the Taft wing of the party is enjoying a revival, one that baffles McCain and his pals in the mainstream media, is hardly a surprise: as we repeat the mistakes of the past, there arise those who know and learn from history.

As in the case of the war that frames the famous McCain war-hero narrative, the present conflict in Iraq is a colonial adventure, which is not sustainable either economically or politically. Yet McCain, with a messiah complex as big and overbearing as his considerable ego, dreams of a Hundred-Year War in the Middle East. Bromfield, truly a prophetic figure, prefigured the McCain persona when he described the messiah complex as "peculiarly an Anglo-Saxon disease which at times can border upon the ecstatic and the psychopathic."

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

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