Legacy of John McCain by Tom Donelson

John McCain Legacy for me is a mixed bag, a Senator who served his country first as a soldier who sacrifice much for his country and finally in Congress, first as congressman before moving to the Senate.  The first time I saw John McCain was in 1993 when he appeared at a health care conference opposing what was then Hillary care. Ms. Clinton appeared briefly in the morning, made her statement and left without taking questions from the media or anyone and leaving the heavy lifting to others to defend her position during the rest of the conference.  I covered the event for KC Jones, a conservative newspaper and had a chance to interview people from both sides including McCain.  When John McCain voted against the skinny repeal proposed by his friend, Lindsey Graham, I remember the McCain of 1993 and wonder if maybe Senator McCain of 2017 might wanted to reread his own speeches on health care reform. He betrayed his own voters who he promised in 2016 that he would lead the fight to repeal Obamacare and his past beliefs.  This vote represented for many of us the most frustrating aspect of John McCain career, a man whose often voted conservative most of his career but in many crucial moments over the years, become the Maverick by not just compromising on his beliefs but abandoning them.

It is the Maverick McCain that helped open the door for the National Populist movement that he would spend the last years of his life fighting. In 2000, the McCain express opposed George Bush run to the White House and his campaign was based on a premise that many voters were no longer satisfied with both political parties. He often moved to populist points starting with campaign reform and later opposing Bush Tax cuts from a populist position that mirrored Bernie Sanders and in some respect, Donald Trump.  The 2008 McCain ran a more traditional conservative campaign but his selection of Sarah Palin, who was a Maverick in her right opposing the Republican establishment in Alaska showed that he had not abandoned the populist and anti-establishment route. Throughout the Obama years, he was a leader in opposition to a good portion of the Obama agenda including foreign affairs.

McCain legacy will be the last of what I would call the Wilsonian internationalist who believed in the goodness of America to influence the world as Coco Konski and I discussed his legacy on our podcast,. What is often forgotten, McCain ran on a platform of a muscular foreign policy and American Greatness, influenced by the staff of Weekly Standard in 2000 and it was George W. Bush who ran on a platform of “more modest Foreign policy,” similar to the Trump campaign strategy 16 years later. The American Greatness did evolve into a more Nationalistic view of America that Trump took advantage of.  Trump ran on the more modest foreign policy but he also ran on the greatness of America with the idea of Making America Greater.  After the 2000 election, while McCain still held Bush’s tactics in the 2000 primary against him, both men found common grounds after 9/11 as Bush sided with McCain view of foreign policy.  Bush adopted the Freedom agenda of McCain and we spent the next decade importing Democratic procedure to the Middle East where so far, they have not taken much root.  We can argue the mistakes made in the Middle East and whether the pro-democracy agenda was doomed from the beginning or had a chance for success, sabotage by poor execution and Obama retreat from Iraq. That is a debate for another time.

The Freedom agenda also led to bad judgment including supporting the rise of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and deposing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.  David Goldman describe Egypt plight before the military finally disposed of the Brotherhood, “In 2012, Senator McCain backed the installation of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt…In July 2013, more than 30 million Egyptians – a majority of the adult population – demonstrated against the country’s Muslim Brotherhood government. Under General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s military took control of the country, which was nearly out of food. Al-Sisi saved Egypt from starvation and chaos…Senator McCain sadly denounced the military takeover as a violation of the democratic process. Technically speaking it was a coup against an elected government, although under emergency conditions and with massive and visible popular support. So beguiled was McCain with the prospect of a democratic Islamic regime that he never accepted that his illusion had vanished.”  The irony is that Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood was seeing the fabric of Democracy already being throttled plus the country was about to enter into chaos and massive starvation.  In the case of Libya, there was no game plan for a post Gaddafi and it became a terrorist playground.

Goldman noted the difference between McCain and Trump when he noted, “The bright line in American policy divides the utopians who believe that America’s mission is to bring free markets and liberal democracies to the benighted, backward nations of the world, and realists like Trump…Senator McCain threw his support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the expectation that it would become a vehicle for Muslim democracy; Donald Trump proposed to insulate America from the problems of the Muslim world.”

The modest foreign policy promised by Bush in 2000 is the basis of Trump’s policy in 2018 and America rejected the more internationalist view of McCain for a more realistic policy that accept the limits to American foreign policy and constructing policy toward a identifying and defending America’s national interest. As I noted in my book, “The Rise of National Populism and Democratic Socialism What our response should be”, Trump foreign policy would be “Donald Trump s bringing back realpolitik, in which our country’s foreign policy will be based on America’s national interest. Idealism will no longer be a reason to send young Americans into combat, but defending our national interest will.”  This approach is not isolationist but a more realistic approach to a world that is now multipolar with different blocs and Nations defending their national interest first, world predicted by the late Herman Kahn in his book, The Coming Boom. I observed in my book, “In 1982, Herman Kahn wrote The Coming Boom, in which he foresaw the economic prosperity of the Reagan years and a new world order that included the rise of regional powers and new challenges to the bipolar power struggle between the United States and the U.S.S.R.  Kahn thought that a multipolar world would eventually stabilize but the era before stabilization could be chaotic.  Kahn’s predictions proved to be accurate.”  McCain worldview has now been overtaken by events and the desire from the American people for a more modest foreign policy.  The world of John McCain internationalism has passed and he, like many within the foreign policy right including William Kristol, fail to realize the changes in the world.  McCain defended those institution that kept the peace just as NATO, Trump is asking the question if these institution serves our national interest.

McCain was a man in full, not a perfect man or the master of the United States Senate and often times, his own view disagreed with his Party. In many cases it was his Party that was right and not McCain. His support for carbon tax to save the planet has been rejected by his Party and with good reason and the one bill that bears his name, McCain-Feingold was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court for the simple reason that it interfered with freedom of speech.

McCain was not perfect and there were times he could hold grudges that last a long time and mistakes were made. McCain would be first to admit that he should have supported Martin Luther King Holiday in 1987 and his refusal to allow Sarah Palin to come to his funeral was more than a mistake since Ms. Palin had stayed loyal to McCain, never uttered a bad word about him and even campaigned for him after 2008.  As Sarah Palin noted not once did McCain ever said to her that it was mistake to place her on the ticket in 2008 only to find out that he would declare this in his last book not yet published.  For many politicians, loyalty is a one way street and John McCain is not the first politician nor will he be the last to throw some of his own past supporters under the bus if need be.  Every politician at some time has but unlike former campaign staffer, Steve Schmidt and Nicole Wallace, who profited from their own disloyalty, Palin stayed loyal.  National Review John Fund summarize John McCain, “But John McCain was enough of a genuine American hero that he need not be placed on a pedestal and treated like a plaster saint. He was throughout his career what is called “a man in full,” a leader defined by his bold moves, bold personality, and bold accomplishments. He also deserves to be described in our farewells as a man in full, with all of his contradictions, inconsistencies, and expedient behavior…By holding up him up as a paragon of virtue, the media failed last week in their job of telling John McCain’s story in full. I suspect their credibility took another hit with many Americans as a result, a credibility that is already so low that someone like Donald Trump has been able to exploit it.”

McCain served his country and suffered as a result and many of the same people who praised him during his funeral were perfectly willing to call him a fascist, a racist and everything in between when he oppose their agenda and it suited them in his 2008 presidential run against Obama.  McCain was not the perfect vehicle and over the last half of his legislative career, he often abandoned principle to reach across aisle and like many of his generation, he failed to see causes of the present rise of Populism, a movement that he himself help start two decades earlier.  There is much to praise about McCain heroism and much to criticize record wise as a legislator.  History and Historians will make their own judgement years from now and I will let others decide if working across the aisle as Man putting country before Party or simply fool errands that did little to advance the causes he believed in.  I remembered the McCain who took a stand to defend free market reforms in health care in 1993, ran on those platforms in 2008, campaign on them in his 2016 Senate race only to desert them in 2017. This sums up the contradictions of McCain the Senator.




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