Burke would have wondered at this. And in 2008 he might have noticed that, if conservatism is as much a temperament as it is any particular set of policies, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both Democrats, have sounded more conservative than many Republicans. Both have agreed, for instance, on the need for health-care reform, but Clinton has emphasized her hard-learned lesson that change needs to be incremental, and Obama has said that a single-payer system would make sense if we were starting from scratch but that getting there from here would be “impractical”—a Burkean way to talk about change.
And then there is McCain. As eclectic a reformer as he has been in the Senate, he has been consistent in his incrementalism. Though he was known to sound hot-headed on campaign-finance reform, his legislative work produced a reform that was mostly modest in its aims and that mostly attained them. He has been an old-fashioned budget balancer, not a newfangled supply-sider. He defends his global-warming efforts as gradualist and as modeled on emissions-trading systems that have already been tested. In the presidential primaries, he showed little interest in grandiose promises.
Indeed, some of what his detractors view as inconsistencies display a distinctly Burkean logic. McCain opposes gay marriage but also voted against a federal constitutional amendment to ban it. Inconsistent? Not if you think that marriage is best handled by the states, which have handled it since Colonial times, or that there is nothing conservative about preemptively amending the Constitution to end-run the Supreme Court, a stratagem future liberals could have all kinds of fun with.
McCain voted against Bush’s big tax cuts, but now says he supports extending them rather than risking damage to the economy. Flip-flop? Not if you believe, as Burkeans often do, that sudden and large policy changes deserve skepticism, but that when a policy becomes well established and woven into everyday life, as the tax cuts have, continuity should get the benefit of the doubt.
In the face of resistance from Bush and his own party, McCain fought heroically for a law restraining harsh treatment of terror-war detainees, yet more recently he voted against legislation imposing on the Central Intelligence Agency the same stringent ban on coercive interrogation that the U.S. Army observes. Hypocrisy? Not if you believe that brutal interrogation methods should be illegal, but that holding the CIA to the military’s white-glove constraints, even in emergencies, goes too far the other way.
McCain, in short, is an antirevolutionary, not a counterrevolutionary. No wonder, then, he invoked Burke twice to an audience of skeptical conservatives—or, perhaps more accurately, skeptical “conservatives.” And no wonder some of them booed. To movement conservatives, McCain represented heresy. But to the conservative movement, he represented a return to home truth.