September 20, 2006
The Moral Exhibitionism of John McCainBy J. Peter Mulhern
If a team of geniuses sat down to design a man who should never be President of the United States they would come up with John McCain. Fortunately the character flaws that make him unfit for the Oval Office also put that office well beyond his reach. Sometimes the universe really does unfold as it should.
McCain considers himself a conservative and any number of his apologists are eager to cite his support for military action in our "war on terror" and his predominantly pro—life and conservative voting record. Nevertheless, many conservative Republicans loathe him and there's a reason for this antipathy.
McCain is a moral exhibitionist. The principal goal of all his public acts is to showcase his exquisite decency. His only apparent ideology is sanctimonious self—congratulation. Consider, for example, his approach to the two defining issues of his career, campaign finance "reform," and the al Qaeda bill of rights.
McCain repaired his reputation after the "Keating Five" scandal� by crusading for the regulation of political speech. This was the cause that built his reputation as a "maverick" and a man of conscience. The solutions for which McCain fought tirelessly never responded to any problem in the real world. They were designed to restrict political freedom and protect incumbents from attack, not to suppress corruption. They have operated within design parameters.
Ironically the McCain—Feingold campaign finance "reform" bill was the most corrupt piece of legislation Congress has passed in modern times. In a democracy there is nothing more corrupt or corrupting that incumbents manipulating the law to protect their own electoral interests.
There was never any prospect that legislation could "get the money out of politics." Unless you abolish both electoral politics and private property, money and power will find each other. Campaign finance "reform" is a downward spiral of regulation followed by disappointment followed by more regulation. That spiral leads nowhere that any sane person wants to go.
John McCain had to know all this when he built his "reform" bandwagon. He knew and he didn't care. Fulfilling his oath to the Constitution didn't matter to him. What did matter to him was looking good.
McCain struck an unholy bargain with the press. They helped him erase the stain of influence—peddling and build a gleaming new image; he cooperated with them to promote legislation that would extend their influence at the same time it sheltered incumbents from criticism.
To anyone who cares about political ideas and the expression thereof, this bargain was nauseating. To John McCain it was an irresistible opportunity to posture and preen. He took full advantage of the opportunity.
Flash forward to the present. The nation is at war and John McCain is doing whatever he can to disable our defenses.
According to the Arizona Senator, if we try terrorists we have to give them access to all evidence against them even if it is top secret. It isn't good enough to share secret evidence with dedicated military defense lawyers who have the appropriate security clearance. We have to share it with the defendants themselves. Senator McCain's sense of propriety demands no less.
Never mind that we have learned from experience that detainees can communicate with their fellow terrorists around the world under cover of attorney/client privilege by using treasonous or gullible private attorneys. This means that any secret information shared with a detainee is compromised. But what is national security when weighed in the balance against John McCain's moral vanity?
The same calculus mandates that we expose CIA interrogators to liability for using any interrogation technique the "international community" might deem degrading. It isn't good enough for interrogators to stop short of torture and McCain doesn't want to decide what is good enough. He doesn't want Congress to define by statute what Americans understand to be the limits of acceptable interrogation.
Those limits have to be as vague as possible so anti—Americans at home and abroad have every opportunity to claim we have violated them. We need to be sure that our officials can be hauled before the bar of justice to answer for the crime of trying hard and successfully to protect us. This may cost a few people their jobs, their savings, their reputations and even their freedom.
But John McCain will look virtuous and that's what counts.
The stated justification for McCain's exaggerated concern with terrorist rights is incandescently idiotic and impossible to take seriously. McCain and his merry band tell anyone who will listen that we have to adhere strictly to the most expansive interpretations of the Geneva Conventions because if we fail to do so our soldiers will be abused when they fall captive.
This defies rational response. McCain might as well be arguing that if we follow the course he proposes the Easter Bunny will bring us lots of treats. There is no Easter Bunny and we neither have nor ever will have any enemies that will be affected in the slightest by the finer points of our policies regarding detainees.
McCain offers one other argument in favor of letting the EUnicks and the other anti—Americans of the "international community" define our obligations under the Geneva Conventions. He says this is necessary for us to keep "the moral high ground."
Here he moves beyond stupid into the realm of insult.
We have the moral high ground and we will keep it even if every resident of the Gitmo Club Fed mysteriously commits suicide by shooting himself in the back of the head while handcuffed to a chair. No other nation in the history of the world would have wasted any time worrying about the treatment of unlawful combatants who were unfortunate enough to be captured. Who has moral standing to criticize us? The British after South Africa, India and Palestine? The French after Algeria? The Germans? Our position at the apex of the moral pyramid in this fallen world is secure.
America's characteristic concern with morality does us credit but it has to have limits. We all need to remember that the goal is to protect us from the terrorists not the other way around. Life isn't a morality contest and purity makes a poor shield.
By opposing all vigorous interrogation McCain is seeking to discard a valuable source of intelligence at a time when intelligence is the key to our defense. This would put us all in increased danger but, no matter. It gives McCain a chance to remind everyone of his years as a POW which are the source of his only genuine claim to distinction. It lets him indulge his passion for preening. It makes him look good.
Time and again McCain has cheerfully traded virtue for the appearance of it. There doesn't seem to be any depth of foolishness he won't plumb if it gets him a kind word from the New York Times. This is chronic moral exhibitionism and it would be disabling for a President.
It is also disqualifying for a Republican presidential candidate. Moral exhibitionism is a characteristic disease of the left. Conservatives are accustomed to ridiculing leftists for their hollow self—congratulation in connection with issues as diverse as minimum wage laws and hate crimes legislation. They associate moral exhibitionism with their political enemies and they won't accept it in a presidential candidate.
Without more conservative support than he is likely to get, McCain will sink without a trace in the Republican primaries. With a little help from his opponents, Republican voters will remember that McCain is the guy who had no problem compromising their safety and freedom for the sake of good press coverage. They will turn away from him in droves.
And it will be beautiful to watch.
J. Peter Mulhern is an attorney in the Washington, DC area and a frequent contributor to American Thinker.