The Wrong War

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Ryan Lizza does a fine job of sketching out the contours of the debate over the GOP's future - Gingrich versus Norquist, Frum versus Gerson, reformers versus retrenchers, etc. - but his portrait of John McCain doesn't exactly inspire confidence in McCain's vision for how the Republican Party ought to be reinvented:

One day on the Straight Talk, McCain discussed what he was reading. It is safe to say that Gingrich, Norquist, Gerson, and Frum were not on his nightstand; McCain is almost always looking at military histories or political biographies. In the 2000 campaign, he seemed to be reading a lot about Theodore Roosevelt, and he frequently worked T.R. anecdotes into his conversations. These days, he often cites William Manchester, a former marine and a Second World War veteran, who has written biographies of Winston Churchill and General Douglas MacArthur ...

Recently, McCain said, he had read “The Coldest Winter,” David Halberstam’s account of the Korean War and its era. “I strongly recommend it,” he told the reporters. “It’s beautifully done. It’s not just about the war, but it’s a very good description, whether you agree with it or not, of the political climate at that time—the split in the Republican Party between the Taft wing”—Senator Robert Taft, of Ohio—“and the Eisenhower wing, and Harry Truman’s incredible relationship with MacArthur.” He added, “At least half the book is about the political situation in the United States during that period—the isolationism, who lost China, the whole political dynamic. That’s what I think makes it well worth reading.”

It was a telling reference and points to McCain’s transformation between 2000 and 2008—from a Teddy Roosevelt Republican to an Eisenhower Republican. In 2000, McCain railed against corporate power and the influence of lobbyists and money in politics. Today, the only mention of corporations in his stump speech is a demand that the corporate-tax rate be lowered. After 2000, McCain seemed briefly to be considering leaving the Republican Party, just as Roosevelt had. But, once terrorism and the war in Iraq became the preëminent issues, he decided instead to take over the Party, just as Eisenhower and the Republican moderates did when, in 1952, they vanquished the Old Guard isolationists who supported Taft. Instead of battling the corporate wing of his party, McCain has decided that it’s the isolationists—a group that he defines broadly, and which includes the left and the right—who are the real threat.

As someone who thinks that Eisenhower still doesn't get the credit he deserves as the finest twentieth century president whose name doesn't begin with an "R," I don't necessarily mind the idea of McCain attempting an Ike imitation, particularly on foreign policy. But the idea that the way to go about it is to make peace with the Club For Growth and make war on the GOP's "isolationists" seems fanciful at best, dangerous at worst. Especially since it's difficult to know which "isolationists" he has in mind. Immigration opponents? Mitt Romney, for using the word "timetable" with regard to Iraq? Conservative who disliked the immodesty of Bush's Second Inaugural Address - like Peggy Noonan, say? I mean, McCain can't be deluded into thinking that the "Ron Paul Revolution" represented a large-scale resurgence of non-interventionism on the Right, can he?

Apparently so:

One afternoon, McCain talked about his surprise at the resurrection of this element in his party, which has been particularly visible in the candidacy of the libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul. “We had a debate in Iowa. I mean, it was, like, last summer, one of the first debates we had. It was raining, and I’m standing there in the afternoon, it was a couple of hours before the debate,” McCain said. “And I happen to look out the window. Here’s a group of fifty people in the rain, shouting ‘Ron Paul! Ron Paul!’ ” McCain banged on the table with both fists and chanted as he imitated the Paul enthusiasts. “I thought, Holy shit, what’s going on here? I mean, go to one of these debates. Drive up. Whose signs do you see? I’m very grateful—they’ve been very polite. I recognize them and say thanks for being here. They haven’t disrupted the events. But he has tapped a vein. And it’s a combination of isolationism, the old part of our party, and the conspiracy. You know”—McCain lowered his head and spoke in a mock-confiding voice—“ ‘We have made an important discovery: the headquarters for the organization that’s going to merge three countries into one—Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.—is in Kansas City!’"

How droll. But, um, Senator McCain, you did notice that Ron Paul topped out at about 5-10 percent of the vote, didn't you? And that every other candidate in the race (allowing for certain variations) took roughly the same foreign-policy line as you? Doesn't that at the very least suggest that there might be more pressing battles awaiting a politician looking to reinvent the Republican Party than a crusade against the isolationist menace? Please?

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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