Saturday, January 19, 2008

McCain? And ALL My Other Remaining Primary Calculations

Romney and Clinton took Nevada as I write this, but the important thing is that I don’t want the dreaded Huckabee to win South Carolina (or the GOP nomination, or the presidency, or the position in the history books of “guy who put the last nail in the coffin of free-market sentiment in the Republican Party”).

It’d be nice if a surging Thompson took South Carolina (I was the sole Thompson supporter in Phil Abramson’s informal poll of about fifty of his friends last week, with half of them pro-McCain — so by that admittedly unscientific measure, I’ve gotten even more fringe than I was while supporting my prior candidate pick). Unfortunately, Thompson might just end up costing McCain victory there and thus boosting Huckabee. Let us assume for purposes of this blog entry (perhaps my last on the primaries until Super Duper Tuesday early next month), though, that McCain is going to win South Carolina, cementing his status as the candidate Republicans seem to be coalescing around (at the moment) in polls across the country. How good or bad would McCain-as-nominee be?

Dueling National Review pieces Friday summed up the pros and cons, both from conservative perspectives, the former by Hoover Institution’s Wynton C. Hall and the latter by Deroy Murdock (perhaps my only libertarian, pro-life, hawk, Deist, Deadhead friend). But the hell with all that: What should we think of a McCain victory from a Seavey perspective?

McCain Pros and Cons

•I know he’s no libertarian (as Matt Welch, the new editor of Reason, has pointed out at book length).

•But he may be religious enough to stave off a Huckabee victory — acceptable to GOP voters who don’t like secular Giuliani and acceptable to moderates in the general election, enabling him (like no other Republican) to beat the Dem nominee (I wish I could ignore the religion factor, but as Bryan Caplan reminds us in this NPR piece, voters are irrational).

•True, McCain says he doesn’t really understand economics — which may make him prone to pushing stuff like the “stimulus package” now being debated. The real question, of course, should be: if it’s really a stimulus, why not do it all the time? (Donald Boudreaux, who pointed out the Caplan commentary on voter irrationality, also notes that another of his colleagues, Russ Roberts, did this NPR piece denouncing stimulus packages.)

•On the other hand, I think McCain may just be brazen and stubborn enough to push through the terribly necessary Social Security and Medicare reforms that Bush tried but failed to enact, which is the most important econ issue there is right now (and the reason Moody’s is talking about lowering America’s bond rating).

•McCain is like a flat, fairly conservative plane with sudden stalactites of liberalism, populism, and opportunism jutting up here and there — but that gives him a triangulatory ability to appeal to right, left, and even Reform Party survivors without even seeming as wishy-washy about it as a Clinton.

•The stalactites can be alarming, though — as when he called pharmaceutical companies “bad guys,” not a position we’re fond of at my day job, though it sells well lately.

•But crucially, when McCain said “Well, they are” in response to Romney saying drug companies aren’t bad guys, McCain was denouncing cases of Medicaid fraud/overcharging, not merely whining about high prices on the open market. Even his misguided position on the importation of drugs from Canada (which is really just the importation of price controls, since the drugs don’t even originate in Canada) is born of a basically pro-market belief that people should be able to buy wherever they want (few people, alas, take note of the elaborate international treaties and price controls that have created the current, skewed market in drugs, a regime to which the drug companies submitted only with the assurance price-controlled drugs wouldn’t be imported back into the U.S.).

•Of course, that basic pro-market orientation will be little consolation if and when he destroys the pharmaceutical industry (likely producing, for once, measurable decreases in lifespan from a single bad policy decision), but it means we shouldn’t extrapolate that he’ll take anti-market or anti-corporate positions on other, less tangled econ issues (even the libertarian Cato Institute, alas, has favored drug importation from Canada).

•I still think the long-term scenario of sneaking Giuliani in as McCain’s v.p. candidate and putting him in an even stronger position to run and win in 2012 or 2016, secularism be damned, is reason to think this McCain thing could be good for us.

•One other small point in McCain’s favor: readers with unnaturally good memories may recall that in this blog’s first entry, posted right after the 2006 elections — even before the blog was officially unveiled to the public — I said that my greatest consolation after seeing the Republicans deservedly ousted from control of Congress was that a chastened-looking McCain was already on TV saying that this was punishment for forgetting the spirit of 1994, which he wanted the Republicans to recapture (and which I’ll write about in this coming Friday’s Retro-Journal entry).

•On a related note, I sympathize with my friend Jacob Levy saying Republicans belong “in the penalty box” for a while after their errors, but isn’t losing Congress and having a quasi-liberal as their prez candidate already penalty enough? Are we done punishing the Dems for all the damage they did to the country during their four decades running Congress? I’m not.

What About War?

•On the military stuff, while McCain is more hawkish than I, his aversion to torture is a plus (I adhere to the real Jack Bauer principle, as does a former White House staffer of my acquaintance who shall remain nameless: this stuff should never be legal but may sometimes have to happen anyway, which is the realistic, more limited, and less-dangerous way of looking at it). Best of all, McCain seems to take the average-American view of military matters: basically, “Don’t go to war unless you’re going to do it right — kick ass or stay home.” Even my fairly-liberal friend Julia Kamin of says the Surge may be the smartest thing Bush ever did, and McCain would probably agree with her.

(One of our December speakers at Lolita Bar, Sarah Federman, who has been leaning McCain for a while now, says opposing our military and terrorist foes is issues #1, 2, and 3 for her and that Obama is thus her worst nightmare — that level of hawkish confidence I cannot achieve, but I can see how people might think that.)

•On the downside, it is hard to forgive McCain for the blow that he delivered to free speech with his campaign “reform” crusade, which has led to political ad-makers having to bow and scrape before judges to prove that their pieces are fit to run in the weeks prior to election day. Ideally, speech should be completely unregulated unless it threatens violence, but even if you accept a narrower, traditional definition of the First Amendment (perhaps restricting obscenity), it’s clear the Founders wanted political speech to be free — yet now the popular view seems to be that we wouldn’t want free speech interfering with politics. And we have McCain and Bush to thank for this, as well as countless liberal (and Reform Party) campaign reform activists. Americans with opinions to share should not have to behave like courtiers — indeed, that’s exactly the sort of point one should be able to put in an ad two days before an election if one so chooses, without having to disclose who funds you or appease some tribunal. (Maybe I can’t vote for McCain. Maybe I shouldn’t vote at all.)

But Who Knows?

•All these calculations could be rendered irrelevant, of course, if the party tickets somehow end up being Romney/Giuliani vs. Edwards/Gravel vs. Bloomberg/Winfrey, but play along with me for now.

•Reminders of how odd this year’s primaries rollercoaster has been: The arguably-most-libertarian/conservative senator, Tom Coburn, endorses McCain — but both Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham are denouncing McCain as a liberal on a daily basis, which may well have some impact.

•Conventional wisdom is that a divided convention is bad because it gives the Dem candidate more time to get established — but maybe a GOP “moving target” until summer is good, followed by a quasi-fresh face (whoever wins) emerging at the end of the GOP convention. Less time for Dems to frame their counter-narratives. (As Robert Novak noted in his autobiography, the divided convention is also a political reporter’s dream — as with the protracted/contested 2000 election, I should perhaps root for this tumultuous process to go on as long as possible, perversely.)

•Sidenote: Drudge linked to an amusing blast-from-the-past piece about Perot still hating McCain for concluding there are no living POWs in Nam. That may mean no endorsement for McCain from Rambo, either (not to mention Chuck Norris).

•I’d also like to note that given how divided the Republican field is, there’s a good chance that I will finish only a few points behind the fifth-place candidate, and I have a much smaller campaign operation than any of the other candidates do.

Worst-Case Scenarios

By pro-capitalist standards, even the populist, Wall Street-bashing Huckabee might be better for the nation than the seemingly-best Democrat candidate, Obama (who praises the “dynamic free market,” for whatever such rhetoric is worth) — but there’s no question that he would lead the Republican Party in a horrible, even-less-capitalist direction, while Reagan-praising Obama might well lead the Dems in a slightly better direction, making it not at all clear I should root for an Obama defeat in the general election if Huckabee is his opponent. (I also had to sympathize with Obama’s recent comments about the debate question “What is your greatest weakness?” being as unlikely to yield honest responses in politics as it is in job interviews.)

One small note in Huckabee’s defense: I don’t much mind his federalist “flip-flopping” on smoking regulations, saying he wouldn’t push federal smoking bans but might applaud state-level ones. As with Giuliani’s federalist compromise on guns — saying bans were good for New York City but inappropriate for the country as a whole — I think he’s flip-flopped his way into a mostly-correct decentralist position, as should more candidates (though ultimately, I want anarcho-capitalist policies at all levels of government, of course).

Taking the Long View

The important thing is never this season’s election but rather the country’s (and the world’s) long-term direction, of course, and I was very pleased this past Thursday by Jonah Goldberg’s speech about America’s fascist political impulses — on the left, not just the right — which is the sort of radical analysis we need if things are ever going to improve substantially (much as he might dislike the “radical” label).

One misguided patriot in the audience at Jonah’s speech suggested it might be unfair to call Woodrow Wilson a dictator, resulting in him getting an earful from Jonah about Wilson’s use of Cultural Revolution-like gangs of thugs to beat up protesters, censorship leading to hundreds of publications being shut down, people being arrested for criticizing Wilson even in the privacy of their own homes (with the approval of Wilson advisor Clarence Darrow, mistakenly remembered as a friend of free thought), and an atmosphere in which the vigilante shooting of a man who declined to say the Pledge of Allegiance (itself then recently created by a socialist) was met by applause from the observing crowd. As Jonah says, don’t say “It could happen here” — say “It already did, mainly under Wilson and FDR.”

I’m pleased to see Jonah’s book (which was the December Book Selection) and the book (this month’s Selection) co-written by Michael Malice (who was our speaker at Lolita Bar this month) and Matt Hughes both way up in the top twenty-five books on the New York Times bestseller list, soaring in the same sales-number heights as Slash, Nikki Six, and a book on the American Revolution, as it should be.

Don’t Think I’ve Gone Soft If I Conclude McCain Is the Best Viable Option

Believe me, I’m becoming very concerned about the consequences for America if it elects Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Kucinich, Gravel, Bloomberg, McCain, Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee, Keyes, and/or Hunter — and the odds of one of these things happening seem fairly high.

Thompson was the only viable one left heading into today’s primaries who doesn’t make me nervous in some way — just very, very sleepy (a colleague who shall remain nameless tells me he’s just as dull in person, too). Then again, perhaps he would become frightening eventually if he remained alert (he might make even more vague, sloppy-sounding comments about terrorist threats from Cuba or something). Regardless, even Thompson-booster Karol Sheinin says he should exit after South Carolina if he achieves nothing momentous there (as should all but the top four GOP and top two Dem candidates, I’d say).

Could be a Libertarian Party year after all. They may be running marijuana-grower Steve Kubby, a businessman, or a sportcaster, all of whom sound far less anxiety-producing.

But in the end: I just want some budget cuts before the economy collapses. Please…someone…budget cuts…help…

(And in an interesting sidenote to that mission: the one doomed GOP candidate who was pushing a libertarian budget-cutting message was referred to as “fringe” by New York Post reporter Charles Hurt recently — but in e-mail correspondence with Avery Knapp, Hurt apparently said that fringe or not, that candidate had been his favorite, too. Gives one hope for a renewed, less-fringey libertarian push in the future.)

Todd’s Super Duper Tuesday Plan Revealed

In conclusion, I’ll leave it up to the Republican voters to decide who they’re comfortable rallying around, neither despairing nor cheering — as long as they avoid Huckabee. McCain, Giuliani, or Romney, fine — and I suspect McCain’s the wisest electoral-strategic choice.

At the same time, contradictory as it may sound, I’m leaning toward casting a protest/hometown vote for Giuliani come Super Duper Tuesday (Feb. 5), just to set a (relatively) good fiscal conservative/social liberal example at a time when that combo has no clear representative — and who knows, by then (just over two weeks from now) maybe he’ll be the frontrunner and it won’t just be a protest vote after all.

UPDATE 1/20/08: The aforementioned Avery Knapp sent this video montage reminder that tonight’s South Carolina winner, despite the positives I noted above, is not really riding a Straight Talk Express. Nonetheless, I suspect it will soon be time for McCain to decide whether he wants Giuliani or Romney as his v.p. running mate. Anyone but Huckabee (and it’s time for the others to follow Duncan Hunter’s lead and drop out).


Sean Dougherty said...

I’m with Cato on re-importing drugs. We wouldn’t be importing Canada’s price controls, we’d be exporting America’s prices. The rest of the world has been free riding on us long enough – once there is a global market, the rest of those markets are going to have pay the same market rates we are.

Canada’s drug costs will go up, ours will go down, which is as it should be. Currently, they owe us with interest.

Avery Knapp said...

As my (motly) conservative friend Karol of said, ABMOH. Anybody But McCain. Or Huckabee.

Todd Seavey said...

This may be too big a thought for a mere comment thread, but…if we are agreed that at this point the Republicans with a shot at being on the ticket are McCain, Huckabee, Romney, and Giuliani…and if — _if_ — I were to agree with you and Karol that McCain is unacceptable (and we all agree already that the Huckster is not), then it would seem Knapp, Sheinin, and Seavey alike must root for:

Romney-Giulani ’08

(at least given my assumption that the religious folk won’t _yet_ accept the pro-choice guy at the top of the ticket).

So NR’s calculations win in the end — or at least, Romney does have the most delegates as of 1/23/08, for what it’s worth.

Avery Knapp said...

I secretly sometimes hope they nominate Huckabee or McCain (as McCain looks likely pre-Florida) so that the Republicans learn a lesson getting Hillary or Obama or another statist in the White House – to win you need to gather the conservative vote, and nation-building ain’t it. Hillary, you see, is wearing the black hat and every conservative (and independent) knows it. Huckabee and McCain are wearing white hats, and every conservative knows they’re fake hats.

Todd Seavey said...

I think when people lose, they tend to conclude they should imitate the winners. Defeat will make the Republicans more like Democrats.

Furthermore, time spent ruled by Democrats will make Americans in general more like Democrats — Russia didn’t, alas, suddenly learn to become a rights-respecting, democratic paradise from its time under communism, and neither will we “see the error of our ways” from having bad presidents, I fear. People instead become habituated to and shaped by their rulers, and we should ameliorate that process at every turn.

There will be no revolution, only damage control.