Forbes FYI editor and political satirist Christopher Buckley analyzes Senator McCain's viability as a Conservative candidate

February 19th, 2008

The Manchurian Conservative

By Christopher Buckley
The New York Times

I have a framed New Yorker cartoon depicting two proper gentlemen in suits, eyeglasses and hats presenting themselves to the guard booth in front of the White House. The caption reads: “We're from the Far Right. We're here to be mollified.”

It dates to the early Reagan administration (where I worked for George H. W. Bush) and for me sweetly captures the sturm und drang then rampant over Ronald Reagan's alleged betrayal of conservative first principles. Funny: Mr. Reagan, to judge now from utterances by presidential candidates on both sides – ahem – of the political divide, appears to have survived that charge.

It may strike some conservatives today as odd, if not absurd, to see John McCain being subjected to an auto-da-fé conducted by such Torquemadas of the right as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity. The other day, he even endured jeers at a conservative gathering in Washington, by otherwise well-behaved exemplars of conservatism. Indeed, turn on the TV at any hour of the day and you'll find Mr. McCain being excoriated in harsher terms than he endured from his jailers at the Hanoi Hilton – variously denounced as a) not conservative, b) really, really not conservative, or even c) so not-conservative as to make you wonder if he isn't just the latest re-issue of the Manchurian Candidate.

In response, let me offer a thoughtful, considered, carefully worded comment: Would you all please just…shut…up? (I'd insert an intensifier, but this is a family newspaper.)

Let's all breathe into a brown paper bag and calm down and consider the question: Is John McCain a small-c or large-C conservative? (Odd that his surname should contain both.) Or is he not a conservative at all?

Yes, it is true that he voted against a few of President Bush's tax cuts. But is that especially villainous, viewed in the context of Mr. Bush's elephantine federal spending increases and the concomitant ruinous depreciation of the dollar? True, too, on immigration, Mr. McCain has allied himself with the Archfiend, Ted Kennedy. It's also true – odd – that Mr. McCain is popular among Hispanic voters, who are themselves paradigms of cultural conservatism and without whose support any “conservative” candidate for president may be doomed to failure. (It would be interesting, by the way, to hear from Mr. Limbaugh, Ms. Coulter and Mr. Hannity as to whether they've ever availed themselves of the services of illegal immigrants. Answer carefully, now: that ambassadorship could be at stake!) Is the “conservative” position on immigration that the only solution is a wall and midnight roundups by Border Patrol agents at Wal-Mart?

It's also true that John McCain has knocked back vodka shots while junketing – sorry, fact-finding – with Hillary Clinton. But then Ronald Reagan used to drink with Tip O'Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House, after the two had spent the day bellowing harsh names at each other like two cranky old Irishmen down at the pub. Indeed, after knocking back a few vodka shots of his own with Stalin, Winston Churchill reportedly said, “I like that man.”

This is a statement, to be sure, to raise the eyebrows and pang the heart of conservatives and liberals alike, but the relationship did produce fruit. Henry Kissinger got along just fine with Mao and Chou En-lai. Madeleine Albright presented the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il, with a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. I have the audacity to hope that Mrs. Albright inwardly held her nose while bestowing this baksheesh upon – as Keith Olbermann would put it – the worst person in the worrrrrld, but images of the event show the secretary of state smiling rather broadly.

While we're on the subject of strange bedfellows, Mr. McCain does seem to be awfully chummy with Joe Lieberman, no conservative. Those two are constantly hugging and pawing at each other, though so far their mutual attraction hasn't yet extended to full osculation on the floor of the Congress, a height of ecstasy memorably attained by Mr. Lieberman and President Bush.

And – true, again – Mr. McCain is a bit of a girlie-man when it comes to waterboarding high-value detainees; but that's a tricky one, even for macho, red-meat conservative chest-thumpers. You get a pass on that one if you've spent five-and-a-half years being bastinadoed by North Vietnamese.

Perhaps some of the excoriations being visited on Mr. McCain are the result of frustration over the failure of his other, more purely conservative rivals. National Review, the Vatican of (big C) Conservative doctrine, gave its official imprimatur to Mitt Romney. But that didn't work out for various reasons. Mr. Romney was not entirely consistent in his positions; in one exchange onstage, Mr. McCain wittily called the Massachusetts governor “the real candidate of change.” (Ouch.) Mr. Romney eventually bowed out of the race, claiming as his reason a desire not to complicate the war effort – leaving the field to the candidate who, a year ago, had raised the solitary voice in favor of the hugely unpopular “surge.”

There was Fred Thompson, a big-C Conservative, enormously likable. The only problem was that he could barely manage to stay awake during his own announcement speech. There was Rudy Giuliani, small-c conservative, thrice-married, pro-choice, pro-gay rights, not on speaking terms with his own children, and untidy in his recommendation for the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security.

Some of the anti-McCain shrieks on the right have averred that it would be preferable to let a Clinton (Hillary, technically) or an Obama have the presidency, so that the post-George W. Bush (“compassionate conservative,” small or large C not mattering much at this point) mess will land on Democratic laps and not ours.

This is an odd and sour banner to unfurl. It's hard to imagine Ronald Reagan, or for that matter other conservative icons (Churchill, Margaret Thatcher), pounding the podium and announcing: “O.K., here's the plan – we'll tank this one and then look like heroes four years from now. Let us march!”

Conservatism is – among other things – a question of character. Mr. McCain has never been boastful on this score. He admits his failures with almost suspicious candor. He can in fact be a real bore on the subject. His Keating Five disgrace so offended his own sense of personal honor that he enacted an auto-auto-da-fé crusade for campaign finance reform: very unconservative.

And yet the sum of Mr. McCain seems (to me, anyway) far greater than the parts. How many elections offer such an inspired biography as his? And who among “us” – with the exception of Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who issued a statement saying that the thought of Mr. McCain in the Oval Office sent “chills up my spine” – would not sleep soundly knowing that the war hero was on the job calculating how to dispatch more Islamic fanatics to their rendezvous with 72 virgins, without an interlude of waterboarding, while in his spare time vetoing Senator Cochran's latest earmark.

Mr. McCain's speech at that big-O Overwrought conservative conference was a model of – I'm glancing at my New Yorker cartoon – mollification.

I'd love to have been inside his brain – or to have had a mind-reading crawl run across the bottom of the TV screen – as he was offering his emollient words. I'm guessing it was something along the lines of, “All right, you blinking, high-maintenance idjits, if this is what it takes, I'm willing to do it, but honestly I'd rather be doing vodka shots with Hillary Clinton.” But then defiance – defiance of the gleeful kind – is a quality I've always associated with conservatism.

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