As the Republican primary season has progressed, the cries from the extreme right have become more and more shrill, and as he took the lead in the polls in every Super Tuesday state this week, the outrage against John McCain reached an almost surreal level. It’s been particularly intense on talk radio, led by Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, but even dragging in relatively sane talkers like Neal Boortz. It’s spread to the blogosphere and into print and even onto Fox News.
Apparently a new way to define who the real conservative extremists are is how much they hate John McCain with every fiber of their being. It reminds me of when John Jay was hounded out of the office of Secretary of State and people in the taverns around the nation were toasting “Damn John Jay, damn anyone who won’t damn John Jay and damn anyone who won’t stay up all night damning John Jay.” The orgiastic cries of outrage reached their most absurd level earlier this week when conservative hatebot Ann Coulter announced on Hannity and Colmes that if the election came down to McCain vs. Clinton she would vote for and actively campaign for Hillary Clinton. She even declared that Clinton was more conservative than McCain and implied that his allegiance to the Republican party was only a matter of convenience and that he was a closet Democrat.
Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and their like are conservative, but they are not true Republicans, and their accusations against McCain ring false both because they attack him on issues where his position is the one which is truly Republican and because many of their attacks are based on misleading and self-serving interpreations of his actions. They may call him a Democrat in Republican clothing, but they are hardly in a position to judge. They are interlopers and traitors to the GOP who are outraged at finally being shoved aside as in primary after primary the famous ‘silent majority’ of real Republican voters are being drawn to a candidate who actually represents the values they were raised with in the party.
Amnesty or Immigration Reform?
One of the things McCain is constantly accused of is support for ‘amnesty’ for illegal immigrants, a charge which the nativist right trots out against all sorts of people who aren’t in favor of the most extreme approaches to immigration policy. If you don’t want to put every illegal in camps, ship them back to Mexico and hound their employers out of business for hiring them, then you’re in favor of ‘amnesty’ whether you actually are or not. It’s a bizarre perspective, considering how much they say they revere Ronald Reagan, a president who signed a genuine amnesty bill back in 1986.
The first problem with this accusation is that it is factually innacurate. McCain never supported a bill which would grant actual ‘amnesty’ in the sense of Reagan’s 1986 law to any illegal aliens. He was never even offered such a bill to consider. The bill which the nativists call an ‘amnesty’ bill and which McCain did support was nothing of the sort.
The Comprehense Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was not an ‘amnesty’ bill. Nothing in it was remotely like a real grant of amnesty, especially by the final version. Amnesty means total unequivocal absolution for past crimes, and that concept just isn’t in the bill. The part of the bill often described as ‘amnesty’ allowed illegals to remain in the US as guest workers for up to 8 years, but restricted them from applying for citizenship until that 8 years had passed, at which point they would have to return to their home country to apply for immigration through the normal legal process after which they would face the standard 5 year wait to become citizens. This would automatically put them at the back of the line for legal immigration, and likely result in most just never applying, because over 80% of Mexican nationals who come here illegally stay in the US for a period of less than 8 years before returning to Mexico on a permanent basis voluntarily. The bill also required any former illegal applying for citizenship to pay a $2000 fine and some lump sum estimate of back taxes, likely thousands of dollars. The time and money involved would be a major disincentive for any who would have considered applying for citizenship. So rather than amnesty, what the bill did was to keep the illegals here as legal guest workers to fill our labor needs and then pretty much guarantee they would leave and never become citizens after a reasonable period. Amnesty would have made them citizens. This immigration reform bill made it extremely unlikely they ever world and even then it would be at great expense and after 13 years of waiting.
The ridiculousness of the amnesty claim aside, the other problem with criticism of McCain over this bill, is that the bill is exactly what traditional Republicans should be supporting. The Republican party is about business and prosperity. The availability of skilled and unskilled workers to fill the needs of small and large businesses and provide services to consumers is at the heart of what Republicans believe in. Whether illegal as they are now or legal and temporary as immigration reform would have made them, the presence of Mexican workers in the US benefits business and helps grow the economy. That Republicans like George Bush and John McCain should support this bill makes perfect sense. That conservative nativists have advocated draconian measures which interfere with how businesses are run and include massive penalties and even jail for employers shows that the interests of businesses are clearly nowhere near as important in their minds as they would be if they were true Republicans.
Soft on Terror or Firm on Human Rights?
McCain is also accused of being ‘soft on terror’ because he has been one of the few outspoken Republican advocates of providing some basic civil rights to prisoners of war, captured terrorists and the several hundred ambiguous detainees still languishing in Guantanamo. Extremists make the ridiculous claim that McCain must not be against terrorism because he doesn’t want to see suspected terrorists tortured.
This leaves me wondering exactly where these people got the idea that a party founded on human rights and which has championed civil rights, individual liberty and the Bill of Rights throughout its history, should ever become the party which supported torture and human rights abuses, even for foreign terrorists. The Republican party was founded on the concept of the equality of all men under the rule of law. In its 1860 platform the party declared “no person should be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” a universal principle which ought to apply to all men, not just those specially priveleged to have been born in the United States. In the 1892 convention the party declared “The Republican party has always been the champion of the oppressed and recognizes the dignity of manhood, irrespective of faith, color, or nationality.” Torture certainly doesn’t recognize the dignity of manhood or the basic human rights of those subjected to it.
The Republican party has always been a party of high ideals, and in standing up against base methods employed for expediency, McCain made himself a spokesman for those high ideals, forgotten by extremists and even by the President, but always part of the soul of the Republican party.
Tax and Spender or Fiscal Conservative?
Another bizarre accusation against McCain is that he’s a ‘tax and spend’ legislator similar to many Democrats, an accusation made even more bizarre when it comes from those who have supported the current administration and the massive deficits which it has generated. The tradition of the GOP is certainly to reign in government spending and try to reduce the burden of government on the people, and the truth is that McCain has been one of the more successful legislators in pursuing those objectives.
This accusation focuses on McCain voting against Bush’s first two tax cut bills. What those who curse McCain for his opposition never bother to point out is that he opposed the first tax cut bill because he felt that it did not cut taxes enough. He wanted to cut taxes by almost 3 times as much as the first tax cut bill allowed for and direct the extra cuts towards middle income Americans. He opposed the second bill because he thought it would cut into resources needed for the military. He ultimately did vote for the renewal of the tax cuts – something his opponents conveniently forget – but has consistently argued that all of the tax cuts should be accompanied by equivalent cuts in spending.
McCain has also been a champion of fiscal responsibility and cutting pork throughout his career. Early in his career he was an outspoken champion of the Gramm-Rudman act which made spending cuts automatic if the budget went into deficit. He sponsored one of the few bills to ever successfully cut farm subsidies. Perhaps most importantly he also sponsored the Line-Item Veto Act, which created the single most powerful tool against pork-barrel spending by allowing the president to strike earmarks off of legislation that reached his desk.
Perhaps some of his opponents within the Republican party don’t like McCain because he has actually done the things they keep promising and never delivering.
Free Speech and Campaign Finance Reform
Of course, the ultimate albatross around McCain’s neck is the ill-fated McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act. Many Republicans, even those of a more moderate persuasion, believe that the act was a mistake, conceptually or in execution or both. McCain’s well intentioned effort to limit the corrupting influence of ‘soft money’ from corporations and other organizations on poiitical campaigns. Many see the restriction of money as the restriction of free speech, and parts of the act have been struck down by the Supreme Court while others have been rendered meaningless through the use of easily exploited loopholes.
Subsequent efforts at reform had limited success and it could be argued that the 1974 act which created the Federal Election Commission went in entirely the wrong direction when it placed more restrictions on individual donors than on institutions. To a large extent the FEC is also responsible for the failures of McCain-Feingold by enforcing it in an arbitrary way and failing to apply it equitably to tax-exempt IRS Code 527 groups. McCain certainly deserves some blame, but most of the problems stemming from his bill have developed once it was out of his hands, and reaction has been so negative that attempts to follow it up with further reforms to correct any problems have been impossible to pass through Congress.
The bill is obviously a disaster, but McCain was not wrong to be concerned about the distorting influence which uncontrolled spending from outside interest groups has on political campaigns. It’s also a fundamentally Republican concern. The Republicans were the first party to ever raise the issue of campaign finance reform when Teddy Roosevelt declared in 1905 that “contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law,” an idea which Congress used as the basis for the Tillman Act in 1907 which was the first attempt at campaign finance reform.
As much as opposition to excessive spending, opposition to corruption is a basic Republican value, and there is no more corrupting force in politics today than the need to raise massive financial support to campaign for office, which keeps many legislators fundraising throughout their terms and puts their virtue and principles under constant assault. McCain may not have found the right answer to the problem, but he was absolutely right to look for it.
Interestingly, a lot of the extreme right criticism of McCain comes from those who support libertarian-Republican Ron Paul. Yet ironically, according to yearly legislator ratings of the Republican Liberty Caucus, a pro-libertarian group within the GOP, John McCain was rated higher on both issues of civil libertarianism and economic liberty than Ron Paul was and had a higher overall rating as well. In their yearly survey McCain is consistently ranked in the top 5% on libertarian issues.
Criticism also comes from those on the religious or ‘moral values’ right, but interest groups representing that perspective also give McCain pretty high ratings, with an 83/100 rating from the Christian Coalition and an 80/100 from the Traditional Values Coalition. Those ratings are higher than any elected Democrat and higher than many of his fellow Republican legislators. So clearly criticism of McCain on those grounds is pretty weak.
McCain’s actual crime – his only real crime in the minds of the extremists – is that he is willing to compromise. Time and again McCain has shown that he knows how to work with others even when he doesn’t agree with them, to find common ground and try to accomplish something positive for everyone involved. McCain is a believer in what Teddy Roosevelt called the ‘square deal’ where everyone sacrifices a little and gets a little and goes away at least somewhat satisfied. McCain has learned to use the enemy and get things done, when his opponents just want to hate the enemy and hope they will go away.
The basic problem is that McCain’s opponents are ideological fanatics and there is no room for compromise in their worldview. That is a philosophy which is inherently contrary to the republicanism on which the Republican party is based, which has at its foundation the idea of the rule of law, the balance of power and government by consensus. McCain’s opponents within his own party may be conservative, but unlike McCain they seem not to have even the first idea what it means to be a Republican. McCain’s growing success shows how their attempts to redefine and control the party are failing.
McCain is far from perfect and unlike a lot of politicians he’s one of the first to admit to his flaws and failures. But whatever other flaws he has and no matter what deceptive attacks he faces from extremists, McCain is a true Republican.