The case for (and against) McCain

In his syndicated column Rich Lowry makes the serious case for John McCain as a profile in political courage: “The tragic courage of John McCain.” (Hugh Hewitt has an important footnote to Lowry’s column here.) Coincidentally, Ryan Sager’s New York Post column reminds us of the Frankenstein monster attacking the core of our First Amendment speech rights that Senator McCain has created: “Un-squelching free speech.”
In “Dream palace of the goo-goos” I took a look at one aspect of Senator McCain’s Frankenstein monster. Every reform implies an ideal state or condition to which the reformer aspires. The ideal embedded in the First Amendment is that of unrestrained speech keyed to the constitutional system of self-government. What is the ideal state suggested by the logic of campaign-finance regulation?
Perhaps the most revealing passage in the hundreds of pages generated by the Supreme Court justices in their opinions on McCain-Feingold comes in Justice Scalia’s dissent. Scalia notes the usual good-government rhetoric regarding “the prevention of corruption or the appearance of corruption” in which campaign-finance reform always comes wrapped. He also takes a look under the wrapping:

[L]et us not be deceived. While the Government’s briefs and arguments before this Court focused on the horrible “appearance of corruption,” the most passionate floor statements during the debates on this legislation pertained to so-called attack ads, which the Constitution surely protects, but which Members of Congress analogized to “crack cocaine,” 144 Cong. Rec. S868 (Feb. 24, 1998) (remarks of Sen. Daschle), “drive-by shooting[s],” id., at S879 (remarks of Sen. Durbin), and “air pollution,” 143 Cong. Rec. 20505 (1997) (remarks of Sen. Dorgan). There is good reason to believe that the ending of negative campaign ads was the principal attraction of the legislation. A Senate sponsor said, “I hope that we will not allow our attention to be distracted from the real issues at hand-how to raise the tenor of the debate in our elections and give people real choices. No one benefits from negative ads. They don’t aid our Nation’s political dialog.” Id., at 20521–20522 (remarks of Sen. McCain). He assured the body that “[y]ou cut off the soft money, you are going to see a lot less of that [attack ads]. Prohibit unions and corporations, and you will see a lot less of that. If you demand full disclosure for those who pay for those ads, you are going to see a lot less of that . . . .” 147 Cong. Rec. S3116 (Mar. 29, 2001) (remarks of Sen. McCain). See also, e.g., 148 Cong. Rec. S2117 (Mar. 20, 2002) (remarks of Sen. Cantwell) (“This bill is about slowing the ad war. . . . It is about slowing political advertising and making sure the flow of negative ads by outside interest groups does not continue to permeate the airwaves”); 143 Cong. Rec. 20746 (1997) (remarks of Sen. Boxer) (“These so-called issues ads are not regulated at all and mention candidates by name. They directly attack candidates without any accountability. It is brutal . . . . We have an opportunity in the McCain-Feingold bill to stop that . . .”); 145 Cong. Rec. S12606–S12607 (Oct. 14, 1999) (remarks of Sen. Wellstone) (“I think these issue advocacy ads are a nightmare. I think all of us should hate them . . . . [By passing the legislation], [w]e could get some of this poison politics off television”).

Scalia hit the mother lode. He discovered that, in one sense, incumbent officeholders tend to have a profound disdain for politics. The ideal of incumbent officeholders promoting campaign-finance reform is freedom from criticism, especially at election time. Indeed, these incumbent officeholders seem to view elections as an inconvenience to their exercise of power.
Lowry suggests that events may be in the process of overtaking Senator McCain’s ambitions. Lowry’s column inevitably puts one in mind of Senator McCain’s martial courage. He is a man who, if it is possible, gave something beyond the last full measure of devotion in his military service to the United States.
In chapter 7 of his 1995 book The Nightingale’s Song, Robert Timberg documents the heroism displayed by Senator McCain during the five-and-a-half years he spent as a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton. Timberg relegates comments about his research to the source notes to the chapter in the small print at the end of the book, but his comments remain stuck in my mind:

Throughout discussions of his imprisonment, John McCain was a reluctant witness and a difficult interview, at least when discussing his own experiences. For the most part, he confirmed incidents described by prisonmates or discussed in published accounts. He did tell funny prison stories and often recalled the heroism of others, never his own.

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