George Will

McCain's signature legislation (McCain-Feingold) restricts what he calls "quote 'First Amendment rights'" in the name of taming "special interests." It expresses a TR-like rejection of Madisonian politics, a rejection McCain echoes when equating consensus -- about the public interest, as McCain understands it -- with patriotism. But another name for the "partisanship" McCain deplores is ... politics.

Ted Kennedy, speaking to the Democratic convention, advocated an end to a politics of "group against group." TR would have heartily agreed. But what is politics for if not the adjustment of such conflicts? McCain was in a TR mood when he said the bailout of the financial system should be "above politics." Wrong. It involves the fundamental political questions about freedom, justice and role of government.

TR invested the materialist doctrine of evolutionary struggle with moral significance for the most manly "races." He wanted the state to rescue America from the danger, as he saw it, that a commercial republic breeds effeminacy. Government as moral tutor would pull chaotic individualists up from private preoccupations and put them in harness for redemptive collective action.

Such as war. TR's response to William James' idea of a "moral equivalent of war" could have been: Accept no substitutes. TR wanted the body politic to be one body, whose head was the president. He disregarded civil society -- the institutions that mediate between individuals and the state, insulating them from dependence and coercion. He had a Rousseauan notion that the individual could become free only through immersion in the collective.

By the time TR tried to recapture the presidency in 1912, he was gripped by what Hawley calls "shocking personal hubris" that manifested itself in an anti-constitutional populism. For example, he thought the Supreme Court should invalidate no law that enjoyed public support, and the people should be empowered to overturn court decisions by referendums.

McCain's identification with TR is, fortunately, superficial -- more about TR's exuberant personal style than his intellectual constructs. McCain's preference for public involvement over private preoccupations stops short -- so far -- of TR's vague but menacing agenda of building civic identity through compulsory national service.

TR's collectivist nationalism became unhinged, polluted by sinister advocacy of eugenics, and by statist sentiments such as: "The woman must bear and rear the children, as her first duty to the state." McCain's Rooseveltian interest in our moral reclamation is at least better than that.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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