Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

McCain and His Laurels

Bill Kristol’s latest argues that McCain is going to have to get more specific. It’s a thoughtful reflection as most of what Kristol argues usually is. But I begin to wonder if McCain is not better off shutting up as much as possible—like Grant in 1872—and barely even campaigning. For one thing, his likely opponent seems pretty adept at saying too much. Why not just let him talk? Why engage him unnecessarily when sitting back, looking adult, and subtle smirking will do? Even Kristol recognizes that this strategy will serve McCain well in the immediate future as Hillary and Obama claw at each other. McCain’s perceived virtue is in his apparent ability to distinguish himself from them (and from other Republicans)… in seeming above it; above ordinary polemic politics. (Notice that I said "apparent," please.) Perhaps he needs to throw some bones to the conservatives in the base. But if he does, I think he should do this quietly and avoid large public pronouncements of any kind (which, in truth, would be full of real flaws in any event and probably only invite criticism from the corners he’s trying to court as his recent speech on treaties and global warming did).

Kristol is right to point out that McCain has never really rested on his POW laurels and, that in any event, democratic peoples are not always willing to demonstrate gratitude for biography—especially when it’s old biography. On the other hand, since McCain (unlike John Kerry) has not run around touting this bio for the last 40+ years, it’s still fresh and the time elapsed has had the ameliorating effect of making it all a lot less polarizing in the popular imagination. It should be remembered that a great number of the electorate cannot remember the 1960s either because they were not born or because they were children (or because… well… because). So McCain’s story is like a movie to us and it is probably the most appealing thing there is going in this contest (that is, if you’re not inclined to get weak in the knees at the sight of the great wizard of O). I, for one, think I could get a lot more enthusiastic about McCain’s personal story than I could about any personal attempt he might make to work on a "broad reform agenda—education reform, health insurance reform, tax reform, government reform, Wall Street reform"—however much such an agenda actually may be needed. I think I would feel better knowing that McCain will be elected president on his biography than I would hearing about the details of his plans for these important questions. Let him have the job—maybe it’s his turn—and then let him find some really smart people to do all that heavy-lifting. Maybe it’s time for him to rest on his laurels.

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