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Is John McCain a Conservative?

By Robert Robb

One of the larger questions overhanging the race for the Republican presidential nomination is this: Is John McCain a conservative? That question is best answered by borrowing a distinction Bill Buckley has made about both President Bushs. According to Buckley, they are "conservative," but not "a conservative."

By that, Buckley meant that they would usually list toward the conservative position, but weren't anchored by the philosophical tenets of modern American conservatism he did so much to expound and popularize. To answer the question of how much McCain can be expected to list conservative requires, regrettably, also borrowing from Bill Clinton: It depends on what the definition of "conservatism" is.

Channeling Teddy Roosevelt

McCain is most clearly not "a conservative" on the issue of the appropriate role of the federal government. Here, McCain has taken after Teddy Roosevelt, one of his political heroes. Roosevelt viewed the federal government as the ultimate arbiter in the political economy with a particular role in being a counterweight to accumulations of wealth or power. He didn't much see a need for the authority of the federal government itself to be constrained.

In his 2000 presidential campaign, McCain frequently inveighed against the power of special interests and touted himself as the guy who would get reforms done by counterbalancing their power. McCain-Feingold, of course, was intended directly to reduce the political influence of wealth.

As a legislator, McCain has also not seen natural limits on federal authority. For example, he sees nothing untoward about the federal government telling cable TV companies how they have to bundle and sell their channels. In 2008, this has not been as prominent a feature of McCain's repertoire. However, it's clearly still a part of his political persona and occasionally rises to the surface, such as his recent moral condemnation of big pharmaceutical companies.


Prominent conservatives are still criticizing McCain for his votes against the Bush tax cuts. McCain defends himself by saying he voted against them because they weren't offset with reductions in spending. But that's only part of the story.

McCain also sponsored, along with Democratic leader Tom Daschle, an amendment to eviscerate the already modest reduction Bush proposed for the top individual tax rate. This was accompanied by rhetoric criticizing tax cuts for the wealthy.

Conservatives used to be divided between budget balancers and tax-cutters. That argument was pretty well settled by the Reagan tax cuts, which both bolstered the economy and produced more revenue for the federal government. The same can be said for the Bush tax cuts.

Deficits do matter and conservatives would like to see a tighter rein on federal spending and entitlement reform. However, there is now a clear conservative consensus that priority should be given to tax changes that eliminate disincentives for productive economic activity. McCain says he would make the Bush tax cuts permanent. But it's far from clear that he has been persuaded that growth-oriented tax policy should take precedence. His instinct is still to be Concord Coalition Man, not a supply-sider.

Spending and Trade

McCain has been a valuable public scold on federal spending in general and pork projects in particular. In fact, the best conservative case that can be made for McCain on domestic policy is that he can most be trusted to expend the political capital needed to break the back of the Washington spending culture.

McCain is also a staunch free-trader. He has a record of standing his ground even when the prevailing political winds turn against him, as they are doing on free trade.

Entitlement Reform

McCain's commitment to Social Security and Medicare reform to correct the fiscal imbalance resulting from the decline in the ratio of workers to retirees is also rock solid. However, his commitment to conservative reforms of the programs is less certain. He's been a steady supporter of personal retirement accounts as part of Social Security. However, he says that Social Security reform needs to be done through a bipartisan commission. All that can possibly result from that is the kind of patchwork that emerged from Reagan's similar commission: a bit of tax-hiking here, a benefit trim there.

On Medicare, McCain's track record is more disturbing. He sensibly voted against the Medicare prescription drug benefit as an unfunded entitlement expansion. However, the principal Medicare reform he has thumped for is allowing the federal government to directly negotiate drug prices, rather than the current policy of allowing providers to compete in part on the basis of price. This is his Rooseveltian distrust of markets showing through again.


McCain's support for providing legal status for those currently in the country illegally has clearly hurt him dearly with Republican activists. It is, however, less clear the extent to which this amounts to a conservative apostasy. The dominant voice belongs to the populist conservatives who believe that the principle of the rule of law is at stake, and there is considerable merit in that contention. However, some economic conservatives, while not as consequential in this debate, see it more as a matter of wrong-headed government interference with the laws of supply and demand in the labor market.

Although it is not discussed much in public, many conservatives also see the large volume of Mexican immigration the country has been experiencing as a threat to the dominant Anglo-Protestant American culture, as described with bracing candor in Samuel Huntington's book, "Who Are We?" That explains the emotional whirlwind McCain's immigration position has stirred up. Still, immigration is, at best, a cloudy lens through which to judge his conservatism.

Gang of 14

I defended McCain's brokering of a deal on judges at the time it was made.
Some conservative pundits express breezy confidence that if a showdown occurred, the ability to filibuster judges would have been jettisoned. Those counting the votes at the time didn't share that confidence. To me, the Gang of 14 agreement mostly represented a declaration of independence by the participating Democratic senators from the effective veto left-wing groups had on judges by triggering solid Democratic support for filibusters. What is known is that after the Gang of 14 agreement Roberts and Alito made it to the Supreme Court. What would have occurred without it is thinly-based speculation.

Muscular Realpolitik

McCain was advocating rogue-state rollback back when George W. Bush was promising a more humble foreign policy and well before the axis of evil. Bush ended up, in his post-9/11 reconfiguration, adopting a sort of conservative Wilsonianism, in rhetoric if not so much in actual policy after elections brought Hamas to power in the Palestinian Authority. McCain's foreign policy is likely to be just as assertive, but without so much of the Wilsonian gossamer.

Whether this is truly a conservative approach should be subject to more debate. The conservative foreign policy instinct used to be to leave other countries alone, except to try to sell them stuff. This was set aside to deal with the expansionist threat of Soviet communism. The overwhelming conservative consensus is that the threat of Islamic terrorism also requires an active engagement in the affairs of other countries. In my judgment, too little attention is being paid by conservatives to the strategic implications of the differences between the two threats, but I'm in an extremely small and uninfluential minority.

If you want an assertive foreign policy, and most conservatives decidedly do, then you can't do better than McCain. He's the only Republican in the race with a real track record on the issue.

Global Warming

The conservative lions are global warming skeptics and cite McCain's cap-and-trade proposal as an incidence of ideological apostasy. However, it is not part of conservative doctrine that those who cause environmental damage shouldn't have to pay for it. Cap-and-trade does leverage markets and is generally regarded by conservatives as superior to command-and-control environmental regulation.

There is a better approach. The scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, hardly a Greenpeace front group, have developed a proposal for a carbon tax, with the proceeds used to bid down other taxes. That way, greenhouse gases are reduced while the tax code becomes more growth-oriented overall. However, if this is a problem meriting government attention, cap-and-trade is within the ambit of conservative approaches. Although liberals and conservatives tend to divide on it, whether the problem merits government attention isn't a question answerable by reference to conservative philosophical principles.

Social Issues

McCain's voting record should make him acceptable to social conservatives. However, they don't trust him, in large measure because of the speech he gave after losing South Carolina in 2008. While the speech ostensibly dressed down specific social conservative leaders, the rank-and-file widely perceived it as ripping the influence of social conservatives generally. It was one of the dumber political moves of our time.

In an attempt to discredit McCain on policy rather than trust grounds, some social conservatives are citing his vote against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. McCain's position has been that he opposes gay marriage but believes it is an issue to be decided by the states. Consistent with that, he voted against the federal constitutional ban because it pre-empted the states, but supported a ballot measure banning gay marriage and even civil unions in Arizona. Social conservatives may not like that. But it's consistent with the principle of subsidiarity - no higher level of government should do what a lower level can do - that was a key tenet of the modern American conservatism founded by Buckley.

Compared to Whom?

Despite their fervent wishes, conservatives cannot exhume Ronald Reagan and put him on the 2008 ballot. So, the actionable question is which of the candidates is the most conservative. In this regard, it is surely relevant that McCain has always thought of himself as a conservative and proclaimed himself to be such. There is reason to believe that he has not always acted as one and overall hasn't earned Buckley's article as "a conservative." Conservatism, however, is the team he has always seen himself as being on. That's obviously not true of Mitt Romney, whom many conservative pundits are trying to advance as the best overall conservative in the race. In his 1994 race against Ted Kennedy, Romney famously said: "I was independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."

While the comment has made the rounds, I'm not sure conservatives have fully pondered its significance. This disassociation from Reagan didn't occur in 1979, when it was unknown what kind of a president he would be. It occurred six years after he had left office, when his record was fully established, including the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nor was Romney a young buck, just feeling his way around politics. He was in his late 40s and, as a substantial business leader, undoubtedly followed public affairs closely.

Before being crowned the conservative candidate, surely Romney should be required to answer more fully and candidly exactly what he found so repugnant about Reagan that he wasn't even willing to be in the same political party as the Gipper.

This isn't to argue that McCain should be the conservative candidate and Romney or shouldn't. Or Huckabee or Paul for that matter. Conservatives are divided because the choice isn't clear. In making that choice, however, this much should be acknowledged about McCain: He's always considered himself to be a conservative. And where he is clearly conservative - on spending, trade and foreign policy - voters can have a considerable measure of confidence that he will remain so.

Robert Robb is a columnist for the Arizona Republic and a RealClearPolitics contributor. Reach him at Read more of his work at

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