Dynamist Blog

An Instinctive Regulator

Jonathan Chait's recent TNR article masterfully traces John McCain's migration from right to left to right on economic issues.

Even though it is in the public record, McCain's voting behavior during Bush's first term is almost never mentioned in the press anymore. Yet McCain's secret history is simply astonishing. It is no exaggeration to say that, during this crucial period, McCain was the most effective advocate of the Democratic agenda in Washington.

In health care, McCain co-sponsored, with John Edwards and Ted Kennedy, a patients' bill of rights. He joined Chuck Schumer to sponsor one bill allowing the re-importation of prescription drugs and another permitting wider sale of generic alternatives. All these measures were fiercely contested by the health care industry and, consequently, by Bush and the GOP leadership. On the environment, he sponsored with John Kerry a bill raising automobile fuel-efficiency standards and another bill with Joe Lieberman imposing a cap-and-trade regime on carbon emissions. He was also one of six Republicans to vote against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

McCain teamed with Carl Levin on bills closing down tax shelters, forbidding accounting firms from selling products to the firms they audited, and requiring businesses that gave out stock options as compensation to reveal the cost to their stockholders. These measures were bitterly opposed by big business and faced opposition not only from virtually the whole of the GOP but even from many Democrats as well.

McCain voted against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. He co-sponsored bills to close the gun-show loophole, expand AmeriCorps, and federalize airport security. All these things set him against nearly the entire Republican Party....

McCain was best described as a progressive--like Teddy Roosevelt, whom he cited constantly. McCain tended to see politics as a contest between the national interest and the selfishness of private agendas, and he favored a role for government in counterbalancing the excesses of organized wealth. In 2002, for instance, he was asked about the Bush administration's view, with regard to the Enron scandal, that "[t]he company had a duty to inform its shareholders and its employees about things that were going on inside the company. That's not a federal government responsibility." McCain thundered in response, "Well, Theodore Roosevelt would not agree with at least that rhetoric....We have had regulatory agencies always to curb the abuses or potential abuses of the capitalist system."

McCain is an instinctive regulator who considers business a base pursuit. It doesn't help that the senator's personal connections with commerce are largely limited to a highly protected local industry (distributing beer) and outright corruption (the Charles Keating scandal). And he's every bit as moralistic as Hillary Clinton, our would-be national nanny. His first response to something he doesn't like--particularly something commercial he doesn't like--is to ban it. The most extreme, and effective, case of this instinct was his holy war against ultimate fighting, a peculiar cause for a boxing fan and one McCain took up when he was still in his "conservative" stage. Back in 1998, Slate's David Plotz, a fan of the sport, recounted his run-in with the senator:

When I tell people I'm an ultimate fighting fan, they invariably respond: "Don't people get killed all the time doing that?" But no one has ever been killed at the UFC--though boxers are killed every year. No one has even been seriously injured at the UFC. On the rare occasions when a bout has ended with a bloody knockout, the loser has always walked out of the ring.

But this does not impress boxing fans, who are the most vigorous opponents of extreme fighting. McCain sat ringside at a boxing match where a fighter was killed. When I asked him to explain the moral distinction between boxing and ultimate fighting, he exploded at me, "If you can't see the moral distinction, then we have nothing to talk about!" Then he cut our interview short and stormed out of his office.

And, again, I recommend Matt Welch's underrecognized book on McCain The Myth of a Maverick

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