Sobran Column -- Authentic John
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Authentic John

December 14, 1999

“I’m here to tell you the things you don’t want to hear as well as the things you do, and one of them is ethanol,” said Senator John McCain of Arizona in the latest Republican presidential pageant (“debate”), held in Iowa. He added, in rebuke to his opponents, that “everyone here on this stage, if it wasn’t for the fact that Iowa is the first caucus state, would share my view.”

McCain’s attack on federal subsidies for corn-based ethanol in Iowa, the corn-growing state, was the latest manifestation of what the media are calling McCain’s “authenticity” — his blunt refusal to pander to “special interests.” After eight years of Slick, Authenticity is in vogue.

In the typecasting that generally accompanies presidential races, McCain is the media’s good guy — the heroic former prisoner of war, the conservative maverick who opposes powerful voting blocs and much of his own party (war on the tobacco industry, new limits on campaign spending, and the use of women in combat).

McCain has also hinted that his opposition to abortion and “gay rights” is negotiable. In foreign policy he is hawkish, as witness his support for the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. He is reliably internationalist and took the bold step of saying that Patrick Buchanan’s views on World War II and “isolationism” in foreign policy have no place in the Republican Party (where they used to be standard); did he think the liberal media were going to boo him for attacking Buchanan?

The media find even McCain’s famous hot temper endearing, in contrast to George W. Bush’s “smirk.” McCain may roar, but he doesn’t smirk.

The very qualities that make liberals like McCain make conservatives distrust him. They regard him less as a hero than a squish, a Rockefeller Republican in Goldwater drag. (It doesn’t help that even Barry Goldwater became squishy in his old age. Conservatives have learned to expect betrayal from Republicans.)

McCain is self-consciously playing the role of the Authentic Candidate who won’t back down from his convictions to please anyone. Let others pander if they want to; John McCain isn’t playing that game. He alone will “tell you the things you don’t want to hear,” which, as it happens, are often the things the media do want to hear.

[Breaker quote: Pandering to the media]When the media praise a candidate for refusing to pander, it may only mean that he is successfully pandering to the media. McCain’s campaign spending “reforms” would greatly increase the ratio of media influence relative to other factors in political campaigns; they would also increase the power of incumbents by imposing limits on challengers. At a time when running for office is already prohibitively expensive, money is the only effective equalizer.

Money, says McCain, is a “corrupting” influence in politics. But incumbency and power are even more corrupting, especially when they are shielded from opposition. One of the first principles of American republican government, founded in reaction against hereditary monarchs, is that officeholders must be removable; McCain’s proposals would make them even harder to remove than they already are.

McCain professes devotion to the Constitution and says he would appoint “strict constructionists” to the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet he is willing to let incumbents (such as himself) regulate their own opposition. Under what clause of the Constitution is such incumbent tyranny authorized?

In this and in his anti-tobacco crusade, McCain seems to take the common view that the federal government can do anything it isn’t specifically forbidden to do — never mind the Tenth Amendment, the real test of strict interpretation, which says that the federal government is forbidden to do anything it isn’t specifically authorized to do.

Israel is now asking for up to $18 billion in additional U.S. aid to implement the “peace process” with Syria. Here is a golden opportunity for a display of Authenticity against a truly powerful special interest: the Jewish lobby, before which Congress grovels. Will McCain show his mettle by opposing this and other forms of foreign aid?

Or is Authenticity just the latest campaign shtick, offering postures instead of positions? Has McCain simply found a new way of playing it safe, taking “controversial” stands that actually cost him nothing and make him a media pet?

Joseph Sobran

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