If anyone could convince me to pull the trigger for a Republican presidential candidate, it would have to be Reihan Salam. It’s odd, then, that his case for John McCain is one of the least persuasive things I’ve read in recent weeks. The substantive points he recites in favor of McCain are remarkably thin – aside from asserting his competence to solve the financial crisis, climate change, and terrorism, Salam barely mentions his actual policy proposals – but I found his political rationale even less compelling. Here’s Salam:
The past seven years have been a time of extraordinary tumult in international affairs, and the world badly needs a period of consolidation and sweeping reform. Our diplomatic and economic institutions are ill suited to tackling the diffuse threats posed by climate change, financial contagion, mass epidemics and catastrophic terrorism. Only Nixon could go to China, and only McCain can reconcile conservatives to some of the hard steps the US will have to take.
When John McCain first ran for president in 2000, he promised to remake the Republican party in his own idiosyncratic image. Just as Ronald Reagan expanded the party to embrace southern evangelicals and western libertarians, McCain appealed to suburban independents who rejected ideological cliches in favour of pragmatic problem-solving. Republican governors and mayors had worked for years with Clinton’s White House to reform and revamp failing public institutions.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume – like Salam – that conservatism must reorient itself towards the center. From the way he’s run his campaign, McCain has proven to be a remarkably inept messenger for any sort of reformist program. For all his tactical brilliance, McCain’s political strategy has been almost entirely substance-free. He can barely articulate a coherent domestic vision without stumbling over the teleprompter. His latest approach pillories “socialism” and “redistribution,” which isn’t very suggestive of a willingness to embrace the welfare state.
Now I’m sure that hardened McCainiacs will reply that this isn’t the “real” McCain, but even if you think the man’s candidacy is an elaborate political ruse, his electoral coalition imposes certain constraints on any future policy-making. After getting elected on the strength of not being a socialist, anti-semitic, afro-centric elitist, I doubt McCain will have enough political credibility to remake conservatism from the ground up.
Of course, if you don’t share Salam’s premises and think that McCain’s approach to terrorism and the financial crisis are absolutely disastrous, there’s even less reason to vote for the guy. But voters who remain enamored with McCain’s persona circa 2000 should also give the man a second look.
UPDATE: Daniel Larison does a fine job of rendering my entire post obsolete. Go read him instead.