Last week, Bill Clinton took pains to point out that a Hillary Clinton-John McCain match-up would be “the most civilized election in American history” because the candidates “like and respect each other” so much. Perhaps the President was addressing the multitude of Americans who can’t stomach the prospect of the slash-and-burn tactics now being deployed against Barack Obama lasting all the way to November.
But Clinton’s remarks only reinforce the concerns that so many Republicans have about John McCain already. Whenever a Democrat praises a Republican’s “civility” there’s reason to beware. Remember The New York Times extolling the “innate civility” of Bob Michel – the man who complacently led the Republicans during their long tenure in the House minority? “Civil” Republicans, the ones who are “liked” and “respected” by Democrats, are those who have minimal interest in advancing a conservative agenda.
Although there is much to praise in McCain’s defense record (most notably, his support for the surge in Iraq), when it comes to a domestic agenda, he’s about the most “civil” Republican a Democrat could hope for. Indeed, in a McCain presidency with a Democratic Congress, conservatives risk becoming irrelevant.
In considering the likely nature of a McCain presidency, the example of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is instructive. Always known as a moderate, he came to power by advocating fiscal responsibility, education reform, and a host of other issues that persuaded conservatives to support him. After it became apparent that his reform agenda was doomed, however, Schwarzenegger made common cause with his one-time partisan opponents. Together, Governor Schwarzenegger and Democrat legislative leaders rule California; conservatives (and to a great extent, Republicans generally) are simply left out in the cold.
McCain’s history is littered with examples of his eagerness to work across the aisle; the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, McCain-Feingold campaign finance “reform,” and McCain-Lieberman environmental legislation come instantly to mind. There’s no doubt that John McCain has earned the praise of Democrats and The New York Times by being willing to support their pet causes. What’s not as clear is an example of McCain taking a hard line against the Democrats on any controversial domestic issue dear to conservative hearts (his crusade against government waste hardly counts – who, after all, is in favor of government waste?).