John McCain seems strangely uneasy at the top. Throughout the Republican primary campaign, he has shown himself an able scrappy underdog, and once the voting started he proved he can be a very good come-from-behind winner too. But McCain has never seemed able to make sense of himself as the acknowledged leader of the pack. At campaign events and election-night rallies, his supporters always chant “Mac is back.” But McCain's challenge now is not a comeback. He needs to solidify his strong position and broaden his base of support. That would seem to require a kind of politicking McCain is very evidently uncomfortable with, and that he has not been very good at in the past.
For most Republican politicians, building bridges to the base would mean meetings and press conferences with prominent social and fiscal conservatives, speeches articulating commonly held principles and policy goals, and in general wrapping themselves in the various banners of conservatism. McCain will certainly do some of this, and has already tried, but it is not his style, and is frankly unlikely to help him much.
He has, of course, famously traveled to the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, and sought to line up party luminaries. And in some versions of his stump speech he does seek to offer a narrative of his conservatism. He gave it a shot in his victory speech in Florida – laying out some commonly held conservative ideals and attitudes, focused especially on limited government – but conservatives had better hope that was not his best shot.
Indeed, McCain 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, and he can be quite effective at expressing both of these profound passions. But, beyond them, he does not really seem to have a vision of what politics should aim to achieve, only of what he is angry about and wants to oppose; and most of the things that anger him do so as violations of honor, not of political principle or ideology.
That is where the misguided passion for campaign-finance reform comes from. It is why, when he moves from the generality of opposing earmarks to a specific example of egregious federal spending, just about the only one he calls up is a corrupt Pentagon deal with Boeing. I have the strong impression (first developed in a lengthy meeting on the subject with McCain himself) that his support for embryo-destructive stem-cell research – breaking with an otherwise spotless pro-life record – is driven by a personal commitment to Nancy Reagan, and nothing else; a matter of honor. He often explains his roots in conservatism in similar terms: as having first developed out of a personal loyalty to Ronald Reagan, who stood by him and his fellow POWs and worked to make sure America did not forget them. McCain does not seem to care about political “issues” the way most political people do.
This is obviously a serious problem for a Republican candidate for the presidency, and it has created powerful tensions between McCain and many conservatives. 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. McCain's dispositional disregard for ideas in politics is therefore taken (and often justifiably) as not only a snub but a very bad sign. He is seen to be an unreliable conservative, and one who takes up very strange causes and struggles that are often at odds with the agenda of the Right. And his protestations to the contrary – pointing to his voting record and his public commitments – do not satisfy conservatives because they do nothing to explain his prominent excursions into heterodoxy.
McCain has made the most of his unusual approach to politics throughout his career, developing his own special brand of honor politics, which in practice is often a form of anger politics. It makes him terribly prickly and self-righteous, but also determined and often successful. The substance of his crusades has turned off a lot of conservatives, and rightly so, but the tone can be quite effective. And when it is directed to a cause conservatives share – most notably the war – the Right can take real pleasure in his passion.
More important, it's all McCain has got, and he needs to make the most of it, and not try to pretend he's something he's not. To both his credit and his detriment, McCain just can't pretend. Rather than attempt a feeble imitation of Ronald Reagan (the ubiquitous mistake of this campaign) and try to paint the grand conservative vision of things, McCain needs to train himself at least to oppose the things conservatives oppose – paternalism that corrupts the roots of personal initiative and self-reliance, a callous disregard for the lives of the innocent unborn, hostility to our cultural traditions, cosmopolitanism that sees nothing special in America – and so to channel his anger in politically (not to mention substantively) healthy directions. That can be his way of building bridges, and it can also be an effective way of organizing his campaign's themes going forward.
Such an approach would likely depend on Senator Clinton's winning her party's nomination. McCain could work himself into a campaign to defend America from Hillary Clinton and the kinds of corruptions (ideological and personal) of American politics and American life the Clintons stand for. It would be harder, though not impossible, to carry off against Obama. It would also require McCain to direct his aggressive hostility at Democrats, not just Republicans, and he has never shown great aptitude for this. But he is surely capable of it, and in any case it will be easier for him to do than almost any other available means of reconciling with conservatives and pulling off a Republican campaign for president.
Conservatives fear John McCain because they assume he approaches politics the way most people do, and so take his substantive views to express an underlying liberalism. That is certainly mistaken. McCain is neither a liberal nor quite a conservative. Even if his actions do not always live up to his own standards, 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, and, lest we forget, supremely vain. This is not a wonderful combination, but it is not a terrible one, and it could well be a winning one in November. Conservatives should view McCain not as a hostile force, but as a foreign and unfamiliar presence, bearing real potential as well as real risk.
To make the most of McCain's potential – his appeal to voters, his personality and force of character, his immensely impressive personal history, his patriotism and devotion to America – conservatives should seek ways to make their causes his, and so to focus on the elements of honor and of greatness in the defense of the American family and the country's freedom and prosperity. They should emphasize the elements of their worldview that speak to honor, just as McCain should emphasize the elements of his that speak to freedom, family, and limited government.
Conservatives should also use this period of the campaign to extract very specific commitments and promises on the substantive issues that move them, but seem to mean so little to him. A man of honor does not break a promise, and this is the time to invest McCain's honor in the Right's crucial aims.
To make the most of this moment himself, McCain should make those promises, and plan to keep them.
– Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine.