The Magazine

Axis of Honor

The McCain-Palin-Lieberman connection.

Sep 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 01 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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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.