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(Not) Like Ike

May 19, 2008

Why McCain’s attempt to run as an ‘Eisenhower’ Republican is a mistake

Given that I consider myself a Blairite, the British equivalent of the American liberal hawks, as opposed to a libertarian, I don’t usually agree with anything written in Reason magazine. However, I think the recent article by Matt Welch pretty much hits the nail on the head. In it Welch argues that, ‘McCain is lobbying hard, and with some success, to be seen as an “Eisenhower Republican”—a doctrine-straddling “moderate” between idealists (a.k.a. “neo-cons”) and Henry Kissinger-style realists’. This is not by any means a new trend as Ryan Lizza talked about, ‘McCain’s transformation between 2000 and 2008—from a Teddy Roosevelt Republican to an Eisenhower Republican’. Tellingly, McCain’s adverts also reference Winston Churchill, whose second stint as Prime Minister (1951-55) most closely paralleled that of Eisenhower. In effect he seems to be reinventing himself as a more hawkish version of Collin Powell.

Now it could argued that there is nothing wrong with this strategy. After all, Churchill did win the 1951 election and Eisenhower won in 1952 and 1956. Indeed, I have to admit that ‘Wrightgate’ and Obama’s neo-pacifism means that a Collin Powell (or John Warner) style Republican could probably beat Barack Obama. However, one has to remember that McCain, unlike Churchill and Eisenhower, does not have the benefit of running against an unpopular government (or in Eisenhower’s case an unpopular lame duck President), but it is he who is struggling get out from under the shadow of George W Bush. Of course one could argue that since McCain is going to win a national security debate anyway, it make sense for him to be as inclusive as possible. However, again this ignores the fact that that articulating a clear and simple strategic and moral justification is a better way to convince people than watering down his message. Since McCain is more interventionist than his statements would suggest, they undermine his ‘straight-talking ideal, making it harder to attack Obama when he tries to reinvent himself as moderate on foreign policy.

It could also be argued that reducing the volume on national security will allow other issues, which are generally much less favorable to McCain to emerge. Indeed, the crux of my argument about this election is that the Republican’s real problems onwards have been whenever they have moved away from national security they have been confronted with the reality that America has real problems with inequality, access to healthcare, a failing education system and the growing power of special interests. The Iraq war, far from being a drain on Bush’s popularity, has been the sole reason why the Republican have remained viable for so long. It is no coincidence that Bush’s popularity started to collapse once he starting wobbling on national security with the disastrous decision to convene the Iraq Study Group. This is why, instead of throwing hawks and neoconservatives under the bus, McCain needs to emphasize his foreign policy credentials, while throwing ‘no-government anarchism’ out the window.

That said, it is important not to lose a sense of perspective here. McCain did not commit to unilateral withdrawals, only hoping that the situation would permit such withdrawals. His optimism that Iraq can be stabilized is positive. At the same time, as several people on various forums have pointed out, he only hopes that “By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq war has been won’. If you were especially pedantic you could argue that McCain is echoing FDR by allowing himself the option of rotating fresh troops into Iraq. However, if that is the case McCain needs to balance such optimism with a signal that a McCain administration will focus on achieving goals, not clockwatching, and that if necessary America will, ‘any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty’. Explicitly allying himself to both the Kennedy and Truman doctrines (as opposed to the Powell Doctine) and selecting Joe Lieberman as his running mate will go some way towards making this clear.

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