The Magazine

Axis of Honor

The McCain-Palin-Lieberman connection.

Sep 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 01 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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As late as August 24, John McCain had reportedly not given up on the idea of putting his old friend Joe Lieberman on the Republican ticket, even though Lieberman is (a) still a Democrat, if a beleaguered one, (b) pro-choice, which would enrage and alienate some of the party's most loyal constituents, and (c) at odds with McCain and Republicans on a whole host of issues. (Lieberman has a rating of 8 from the American Conservative Union, McCain's is 80.)

McCain, inspired by Ronald Reagan to go into politics, has been established for almost 30 years as a center-right figure; Lieberman, inspired in a similar way by John Kennedy (who in some ways now seems not that far from Reagan, especially when compared with most modern-day Democrats) is firmly on the center-left. When told by advisers that his party would rebel if asked to--uh--put an actual Democrat on the Republican ticket, McCain pivoted and picked Sarah Palin, a woman beloved by the social-conservative wing of the party that has long looked on him with intense, and sometimes well-earned, suspicion.

When this center-right pro-life Republican maverick went in a matter of days or perhaps even hours from a pro-choice Democrat to an exceedingly pro-life conservative heroine, it was called a cynical move, an unprincipled move, an incomprehensible move, even an "insulting" move to try to poach Hillary voters still boiling at the dismissive treatment of their heroine by Barack Obama. In fact, it was none of these things. It was simply McCain being true to his own inclinations. These are not those of most politicians. And they need to be judged on their own.

McCain's attitude toward picking his second is entwined in his problems with movement conservatives, with whom his relations have seldom been smooth. It's not that he is liberal, or has something against them: It's that they're living in two different worlds. They're talking French, and he's talking Spanish; they come for baseball, and he's playing football; they're playing poker, and he's playing craps. They live in a world of ideas, he of instinct; they prize coherence, he prizes courage; they prefer order, and staying on message, he enjoys mixing things up. Now and then, their interests converge and there is harmony; then they part ways, and there's strife.

From time to time, like marriage counselors or concerned friends of the family, various pundits have tried to mediate between the two, interpreting each to the other lest separation or divorce become final. "John McCain is not a normal conservative," wrote David Brooks in the New York Times on September 2.

"He has instincts, but few abstract convictions. .  .  . He's a traditionalist, but is not energized by the social conservative agenda. .  .  . The main axis in McCain's worldview is not left-right. It's public service versus narrow self-interest. Throughout his career, he has been drawn to those crusades that enable him to launch frontal attacks on the concentrated powers of selfishness .  .  . big money donors who exploited the loose campaign finance system .  .  . corrupt Pentagon contractors .  .  . the earmark specialists in Congress like Alaska's Don Young and Ted Stevens."

In National Review, Yuval Levin takes it still further: "Conservatism is a movement of ideas, grounded in premises and theories that tend to be fairly close to the surface, and that directly inform the day to day political judgments conservatives make," he says, explaining why, in this sense, McCain is not one of them. "Indeed, [he] seems ill-suited to articulate and champion a positive ideology as conservatives generally understand the term. He is obviously devoted to his country and deeply committed to an ideal of honor .  .  . but beyond them he does not really seem to have a vision of what politics should aim to achieve .  .  . Conservatives fear John McCain because they assume he approaches politics the way most people do, and take his substantive views to express an underlying liberalism. That is certainly mistaken. McCain is neither a liberal nor quite a conservative. .  .  . McCain is an honor politician--aggressive in opposing corruption, hypersensitive to inauthenticity or dishonesty, addicted to big causes, essentially uninterested in what most conservatives take to be the substance of politics," which tends to tax-cutting, or family-values crusades.