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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.

McCain believes in small government and he is pro-life, or rather he prefers these views to their opposite numbers, and he can be relied on to back them. But the singular passion that a Grover Norquist pours into tax cuts, or a right to life activist pours into his movement, is channeled in McCain's case into the concept of honor, and to the "big causes" that often transcend party politics. At this time, his "big causes" are war and peace--national defense, national security, the war in Iraq, and the larger war on terror--and domestic reform, i.e., corruption and spending. These concerns led him to Palin and Lieberman, who are the twins of the two halves of his politics.

Lieberman is his twin on the war, Palin his twin on domestic affairs, which to him means clean government. This is why he could pair with either quite neatly, though they differ with him (and with each other) on any number of issues. In McCain's view, these issues are of lesser or no consequence. This may not make sense by a normal political calculus. But he is not your normal political animal.

A conviction figure, a man of honor who takes huge risks on behalf of his causes and values--in Vietnam, and in risking his political career on the surge when the Iraq war seemed most hopeless--McCain finds kindred spirits in those who do likewise.

Palin made her chops battling the powers that be in Alaska, among them her party's most powerful figures. As for Lieberman, it is likely that McCain's attachment to him has only been strengthened by the abuse Lieberman took from his own party for his refusal to go along quietly with its plans to give up in Iraq. No one, not even George W. Bush, has been attacked with more visceral hate than the left wing of his party showed to the renegade Connecticut senator, who has been assailed as a sell-out, a Quisling, a war criminal, and "Joe Lieberman (Traitor-CT)," to give only the printable epithets.

Two years ago, Lieberman drew a primary challenge, and when he lost narrowly on August 9, 2006, saw friends of 10 and 20 years' standing desert him for millionaire Ned Lamont, cut checks to his rival, and urge him, for the good of the party, to drop out of the race. Instead, Lieberman ran and won as an independent, and at the end of 2006 was one of the few senators, along with McCain, to back the surge energetically, voting with Republicans to cut off the Democrats' efforts to force an end to the conflict. This did not endear him to the rest of his caucus, which did not bother to hide its hostility. Being insulted by Chris Dodd is not in the same class as being tortured by Communist prison guards, but McCain nonetheless regards Lieberman as a fellow survivor, willing to bear pain and take risks on behalf of his principles.

As for Palin, the conventional view was that she was picked in an identity-based play for Hillary voters, but, while her sex was a bonus, this wasn't remotely the whole story. It helped that she was a woman, with appeal in the Mountain West, and to blue-collar voters, but in the end she was picked as a maverick, a fellow crusader, a defier of the Republican establishment who could reinforce McCain's main brand.

"When McCain met Sarah Palin .  .  . he was meeting the rarest of creatures, an American politician who sees the world as he does," as Brooks put it. "She lit up every pattern in McCain's brain, because she seems so much like himself." It was not such an odd thing that Palin and Lieberman should have been McCain's favorites in the end. They are the Three Musketeers, an Axis of Rebels, with different ideas but a shared concept of integrity and honor, who see public life as a great western movie.

Can honor sell? Not that many Americans are obsessed with ideological purity. Honor appeals across lines of race, class, and gender. Politicians come and go, and few are remembered. But everybody remembers High Noon.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.