McCain has also often taken gutsy and discerning stands on national security. He stood up and supported the Kosovo war despite personal misgivings and general Republican apathy over what they deemed "Clinton's war" because he thought it necessary to rally around the president and troops in time of battle. McCain also gave the most persuasive argument why containing Saddam Hussein was untenable, and then after 2003 became a persistent critic of the management of the war, including troop levels, before taking the unpopular (even among Republicans) early stand of supporting the surge, which has made significant advances. He often sees conflicts within a clash of civilizations, warning about the threat posed by radical Islam, while remaining flexible in tactics and alliances. McCain has also persistently warned against the danger of a nuclear Iran, and even raised the idea of bombing Iran's nuclear sites when much of the country is wary of new military engagements. A McCain administration would make our enemies nervous in ways that no president has since Bush in 2001-03 or Reagan for much of his tenure.
It was Churchill's credibility, earned by staking out unpopular but prophetic positions, that led him to be embraced by his political nemesis Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when war broke out in 1939, and then catapulted him to replace Chamberlain over war mismanagement in 1940. After shockingly losing the postwar election in 1945, Churchill regained the premiership in 1951 by seizing on the Labour government's failures in economic and foreign affairs. He coopted the political center by advocating, in place of bitter party strife, a "solid stable administration by a government not seeking to rub party dogma into everybody else."
It was McCain's unique national security credibility that similarly brought him back into the good graces of his more powerful political rival, President George W. Bush, and he can legitimately offer himself as a competent and effective wartime commander in chief. But McCain now can attain the presidency only if he also reaches out to the political center, or independents, as he has before.
Adhering to party orthodoxy is no guarantee of greatness. Churchill often diverged from the party line, but he emerged undeniably the greatest leader of his party, country, and the West of his era. Indeed, Stanley Baldwin, prime minister of the mid-1930s, was a most popular Conservative party leader but is remembered by history for dawdling while Nazi Germany rearmed. Churchill memorably claimed publicly in 1936 that the Baldwin government was "resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent," and later lamented privately he would have preferred Baldwin never had lived. Churchill was far more gracious toward Chamberlain, who at least tried to do something to blunt the Nazi threat, however disastrous the result of his appeasement policy.
McCain certainly has not achieved Churchill's heights, but he can legitimately claim to be the most Churchillian among the Republicans of his day. That not only offers hope for a possible McCain administration, especially during this time of war, but should also be encouraging to conservatives.
Michael Makovsky, foreign policy director of the Bipartisan Policy Center, is a former special assistant in the Office of Secretary of Defense, 2002-2006, and is author of the new book Churchill's Promised Land (Yale University Press).