Honor Bites Back

Yuval Levin offers what is, I think, an insightful analysis of the problem with John McCain's approach to domestic policy issues and, indeed, I'd say all issues:

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.

Ross agrees and says it's "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."

But, look, the problem's worse than that. For a good long while now the Republican Party has been pushing an approach to economic policy that is contrary to the interests of most Americans. So how do they win office? Well, primarily by being a political party that's appealing in lots of other ways -- foreign policy and cultural hot-buttons, yes, but also a lot of stuff about character. In particular, character arguments were central to George W. Bush's critique of Al Gore and John Kerry and, indeed, were about all there was to Bob Dole's 1996 campaign. This has tended to work well as a tactic because the press is a great venue for transmitting character attacks but a terrible venue for transmitting issue attacks because reporters mostly don't understand issues and even when they do they pretend not to.

It's been an effective political strategy. But one thing it does is open the door wide open to someone like John McCain who really and truly doesn't seem to have opinions about policy questions. The very same conservative opinion-mongering institutions that are so frightened of McCain are the very ones that played a key role in shifting the conversation in 2000 and 2004 to the politics of honor and character. And so they get McCain and they really lack the context to make the point that it's a problem that his thinking is so muddled and unclear.