Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

McCain the honor politician

Yuval Levin does an excellent job of explaining what makes John McCain tick (almost identical with what ticks him off), its uneasy relationship with "principled conservatism," and how conservatives can try to make their causes his. The result won’t have much staying power beyond this campaign or a McCain administration since it depends almost entirely on the mostly admirable character of the manly man, but it is the hand we have been dealt.

And to the degree that politics is about the formation of character--something conservatives who haven’t sold their souls entirely to libertarianism surely can’t deny--a McCain candidacy and presidency could offer a highly particular and personal vision of a kind of national unity.

The problem, as Peter Lawler has pointed out in an all-too-brief post (though doubtless soon to be in print or online somewhere in a more expanded version) is that honor politics is problematical or incomplete as a democratic politics. Men of honor have a hard time feeling compassion or respecting the ordinary lives of their fellow citizens or living with even a non-debased equality. McCain the "aristocrat" needs a leavening of "democracy"--not mere egalitarianism or pandering (the old Clintonian feeling our pain)--but what Peter has called "the preacher." This is a vision of nobility that justifies sacrifice not as an act of generosity or noblesse oblige, but as an expression of solidarity.

John McCain 1.0 could do well campaigning against Hillary Clinton. In both of them, "democracy" looks more like aristocratic generosity than solidarity. The difference is that McCain’s distance comes from his character, whereas HRC’s comes from her wealth. Clinton’s can even come across as interest group log-rolling, which really helps McCain. (If she could ever compellingly make her liberal Methodism part of her public persona, it would help her at the margins, adding a small element of solidarity to her noblesse oblige. But I digress.)

It would, I think, take a McCain 2.0 effectively to contest the election against Obama, whose seemingly vacuous message of unity hits all the right democratic notes. McCain the mere aristocrat can’t beat that. He needs someone not named Huckabee who can relatively plausibly present himself as a "sacrificial servant" as a running mate.

But even if you don’t buy a word of what I’ve said, read Levin’s article. It’s that good.    

Discussions - 6 Comments

McCain-Huckabee; The Warrior and the Priest.

Notice how when we turn philosophical and consider principles, the discussion of Mitt the venture capitalist vanishes...pure Lockean never inspires more than a handful of people.

Nice piece. Thanks.

"Conservatism is a movement of ideas, grounded in premises and theories that tend to be fairly close to the surface"

Ideas by themselves can form an incoherent mess unless anchored by still-deeper foundational principles. A sense of honor and integrity can be one of those principles. We can argue whether McCain embodies honor, but I think it would be a mistake to suggest honor is an insignificant virtue.

I will go one step further -- honor and integrity seems to be a deeply rooted yearning on the part of humanity. It is the central (and successful) message of the Marine Corps. It is a central theme in nearly all great expressions of humanity in literature and films.

So honor is good. But it is quite possible to invest one's sense of honor in the wrong things. For example, I wonder if McCain's sense of honor regarding the conduct of one Senator to another might prevent him from engaging either Clinton or Obama with as much vigor as he might otherwise? And my personal concern -- is McCain's sense of honor regarding protection of his own sense of pride the card that trumps all else?

After all of these years, it is hard to accept McCain as a foreign and unfamiliar presence, bearing real potential as well as real risk. I sure do hope he has integrity. I'm a little nervous on that point.

But, yes, it is a good article and a good reminder.

My mother, a Democrat since Kennedy who knew she was a Democrat after a stroke when she had forgotten the names of her grandchildren, said today that she might vote for McCain. That she could do so is another reason that I find him daunting. It is also impressive.


And yes to Don's comment.

Quick follow-on to the topic of honor and integrity: young people today are crying out for this. If conservatives could package the message properly they could tap the very deep root that resides within the heart of young America.

Package the message properly.

Yes, I have been writing and thinking bumblingly through the idea of honor and integrity within the GOP for the last few days. This partly because, yes, young people, my children included, are especially wanting to find that. It's not just a matter of packaging the message properly. The honor and integrity has to be there. Too many kids who might be conservative aren't finding those qualities in the Republican Party. That's the scary part.

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