Man of Honor

Yuval Levin, on the McCain domestic-policy problem:

On domestic issues, McCain’s problem is not that his views are too far from the public’s. It’s that he simply doesn’t care about any of the issues on the table. In fact (as I argue in next week’s issue of National Review) McCain doesn’t actually seem to care about any political “issues” at all. He is moved by honor and country, and this has driven him to be passionately active on a few domestic fronts, but for different reasons than those that motivate just about every other politician. (A misunderstanding of this point has, I think, been behind much of the often excessive distress at McCain’s apparent ascendancy in some quarters of the right this week). And he has not found a way to understand, say, health care in terms of honor, honesty, or character. So even though his campaign has offered a very strong conservative proposal for health care reform, McCain seems incapable of talking about it as though it were even remotely significant.

Both of the Democrats, whatever you think of their particular proposals, can communicate a sense of the significance and urgency of this and the other issues that seem increasingly likely to dominate the general election. McCain’s challenge is not only to persuade conservatives he can carry their banner, but to persuade himself that the concerns and aspirations of the middle class family matter. Although he may well be the Republican with the best chance of winning in November, this won’t be an election that naturally plays to John McCain’s strengths.

This is, of course, another difficulty with a politics that takes "national greatness" as its touchstone and heroism as its defining virtue - it breeds a disinterest, or even an impatience, with the more quotidian (but nonetheless crucial) aspects of policy and governance. This is by no means an exclusively right-wing temptation, obviously, as the cult of JFK attests, and in this election cycle I think you can see intimations of it Barack Obama as well as in McCain. But Obama has a touch of the wonk (or the law professor) about him that leavens his weakness for grandiosity, whereas the Arizona Senator can seem almost physically uncomfortable with any policy argument that isn't framed in the sort of "honor, duty, country" terms that Yuval describes.