Except in one admittedly troubling respect, John McCain is not a facsimile of George W. Bush, and his presidency would almost certainly not mirror the reign of the worst president ever.
While McCain, to quiet the base, has come around to embrace nearly all of Bush's most ruinous policies, including tax schemes that he once ridiculed as Christmas for the rich, the drift of his political career tells you that he is not the foolish ideologue that Bush is. As a senator, McCain occasionally strayed from the modern Republican orthodoxy, which is that government should tax work rather than wealth, scorn frugality, regard the environment not as our common heritage but as opportunity for profitable exploitation and measure public morality only by private sex habits.
Last week, McCain pronounced his model president to be not Ronald Reagan but Theodore Roosevelt, who was in some ways the most liberal president of the 20th century. He busted corporate trusts, ushered in the regulatory state, called for national health insurance for everyone and condemned the federal courts for their hostility to labor unions. President Roosevelt came to Little Rock in October 1905 to speak to the South about the rule of law and ending lynching. He took on Arkansas's racist and fiercely popular governor, Jeff Davis, in what is now MacArthur Park, sternly rebuking the governor to his face for his praise of the common practice of lynching black men who were thought to take liberties with white womanhood.
Would John McCain really be like that? The Straight Talk Express has never been so forward.
But I said that McCain and Bush were twins in one respect. It is their lack of curiosity or at least a diligent inquisitiveness. Neither seems ever to trouble himself with a quest for a deep knowledge of any subject, even the issues that imperil the health of the republic.
Thus McCain earnestly bought into the need for war with Iraq when there was no credible source of knowledge to support Bush's justifications for the invasion. Many others, like Sen. Hillary Clinton, voted for the war in a mistaken impulse to maintain their political viability, but you have to believe that McCain was sincerely misguided.
McCain would reveal just how little he understood about the dynamics of the region in his last tour of Iraq in April when he repeatedly denounced Iran for training and equipping al Qaeda terrorists, which every armchair expert on the war knew to be ridiculous. McCain's friend Joe Lieberman finally had to lean in and correct him: Iran supported Shiite insurgents, not al Qaeda. The Sunni-Shia feud is the heart of the whole struggle and McCain evinced no understanding of it.
That failing surfaced again last week when a woman at a Denver town-hall meeting uttered the Republican-generated alarm that Social Security was bankrupt and she wouldn't get her retirement. It was not true, but rather than allay her fears McCain fed them. He said, amazingly:
“Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that's a disgrace. It's an absolute disgrace, and it's got to be fixed.” His solution is the same as Bush's, start to privatize Social Security.
As almost every retiree but John McCain surely knows, “paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers” is the definition of Social Security. It's worked like that from the start. If Social Security is an absolute disgrace it's been that for 70 years.
It is true that if demographic trends continue and absolutely nothing is ever done, like Barack Obama's proposal to lift the taxable income ceiling to $250,0000, the trust account will hit zero sometime a little before mid-century and retiree benefits would be cut by a fourth, leaving them somewhat above current benefits, adjusted for inflation.
Four years ago, McCain was asked about Social Security and he said he could think of “no way” that today's young workers could expect to get their retirement benefits except by “privatization,” Bush's plan to let workers opt out of Social Security and open their own private investment accounts. He has had little to say about Social Security in this campaign.
The privatization that McCain and Bush have advocated is about the only way that current workers might not get their accrued benefits. It would rob the trust fund of assets to meet the needs of retirees far ahead of mid-century.
McCain may know no more about Social Security than he does the ethnic and religious rivalries in the Middle East or the economy, but there is this consolation. Unlike Bush, his ideological firmament is never fixed and he will cave in to reality.
At one point, McCain said he would work with Democrats to solve problems and follow Ronald Reagan's example on Social Security. It was in a far worse predicament in 1984 when Reagan sat down with House Speaker Tip O'Neill and they agreed to raise payroll taxes. That's the kind of president he would be, McCain said. Someone asked, raise taxes? Well, no, that's off the table, he said.
That, like so much else about John McCain, is not inspiring, but your prospects are better than with George Bush.