Candidate Analysis of John McCain


John Sidney McCain III will be 72 years old on the next Inauguration Day.

McCain was born in 1936 in the Panama Canal Zone, which at the time was a United States possession. Both his father and grandfather were four-star Admirals in the U.S. Navy, both of whom distinguished themselves in World War II. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, where despite middling grades and some disciplinary problems, he was recognized as a leader by his fellow midshipmen (as well as a hellraiser; one described being at liberty with McCain as like being in a “train wreck”). He crashed a plane after graduation, and ran a second plane through power lines, and continued a hard-partying lifestyle as a junior officer.

He began to adopt a more serious approach to life and his career after deployment on the USS Enterprise in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In 1965, he married his first wife and adopted her two children (her first husband had been one of his classmates at Annapolis) and they had a daughter. Growing dissatisfied with his role as a trainer, he requested and was granted a combat assignment in 1966, being reassigned to the USS Forrestal on duty in the Vietnam war. There, he flew high-risk missions intended to destroy Soviet-built anti-aircraft installations, and grew frustrated with micromanagement of Operation Rolling Thunder.

He was twice almost killed in action. In the first incident, ordinance exploded before he could launch his A-4 Skyhawk. McCain was able to escape the cockpit of the plane by crawling forward on the fuselage, and had to jump onto a deck covered with burning napalm. He later stated that seeing the napalm up close gave him grave moral misgivings about using it as a weapon. Film of this incident is still used in the Navy for safety training.

The second and more famous incident was on his twenty-third bombing run, when his A-2 was shot down, and he crash-landed in a lake near Saigon. He spent six weeks in a Viet Cong hospital and then was taken a prisoner of war. The Viet Cong understood his high value as a prisoner since his capture made the front page of the New York Times; several months after he was shot down, his father was made commander-in-chief of the Pacific theater of naval operations, meaning that the Viet Cong had as its prisoner the son of the overall commander of military operations against it. The Viet Cong offered to release McCain early, but McCain refused release so that other POW’s who had been imprisoned longer than him could be released first. McCain did not know it at the time, but this denied the Viet Cong a substantial propaganda victory; Vietnamese leaders later admitted that they intended to use McCain’s early release to tell other American POW’s that only privilege mattered to demoralize them.

Disappointed that this demoralizing public relations tactic had failed due to McCain’s refusal to cooperate, the Viet Cong began to torture McCain daily with rope bindings, daily beatings, and withholding treatment for dysentery. After breaking several bones and several teeth, he signed a forced confession with obviously bad grammar indicating its forced nature. When someone in the VC who knew English well caught on to this, he refused to sign a second confession, earning more beatings. When asked to give the names of other men in his unit, recited the names of the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line.

After being transferred to somewhat less horrific conditions in Hanoi, he was given the opportunity to meet with American anti-war activists visiting there, and again refused to do so. He was not released until after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, having spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war — five more than he would have, had he agreed to the early release that was offered to him. For this, he earns this blog’s Big Brass Ones Award. To this day, he cannot raise his arms above his head; a wave at or just above ear level is about all he can manage without excruciating pain.

After his return to the U.S., he rehabilitated from his injuries, and then served as executive officer of a naval air squadron based in Jacksonville, Florida, and turned around its performance to the point that the squadron won a Meritorious Service Award. However, his marriage fell apart and he had several extramarital affairs; he divorced his first wife in 1980, after a four-year separation in which McCain fell in love with his second wife, the daughter of a wealthy Phoenix beer distributor. McCain came to believe that he would not make Admiral (a messy personal life can sometimes do that to an officer’s career), and so he resigned from the Navy, having obtained the rank of Captain (the equivalent of a full-bird Colonel in the Army or Marines) in 1981. For his service, mainly in Vietnam, he had earned a Bronze Star, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, the Order of Merit, and a Purple Heart.

With his second wife, he went on to have a daughter and two sons, and they adopted a daughter from an orphanage operated by Mother Teresa in Bangladesh. McCain’s oldest son (from his first marriage) is an Annapolis graduate and was a Navy pilot like his dad; his middle son (from his second marriage) is is in the U.S. Marine Corps and currently deployed in Iraq; his youngest son is in Annapolis right now. In all, he has seven children born over a thirty-five year stretch of time; by all accounts the various children are all on good terms with one another and their father, and McCain now has four grandchildren to add to the mix. McCain called himself an Episcopalian until only a few months ago, but has attended services at a Baptist megachurch in suburban Phoenix for many years. He has a penchant for carrying lucky charms like rabbit’s feet and feathers with him and has had several treatments for skin cancer and melanoma and caused him to joke “I’m older than dirt and have more scars than Frankenstein.”

Political Experience

In 1977, McCain became the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate, where he worked for three years. McCain left the Navy in 1981 and briefly worked for his father-in-law in Phoenix; he used the opportunity to make powerful and wealthy friends in Arizona including banker Charles Keating and the editor-in-chief of the Arizona Republic. In 1982, he ran for Arizona’s First Congressional District and faced charges of being a carpetbagger. At a candidate forum, he responded to a citizen challenge that he wasn’t a “real” Arizonan with this retort:

Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.

Between the fame gained for that quip, a healthy campaign loan from his wealthy wife, and the enthusiastic support of the Arizona Republic, McCain went on to get the nomination to the safely Republican seat by a healthy margin, which he held for two terms. He generally followed the Reagan Administration’s agenda as a Congressman. However, McCain’s famous retort to the voter also reveals a bitter, short-tempered side of his personality which has haunted him for his entire political career.

In 1986, he ran for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by the retiring Barry Goldwater, and found himself unopposed for the Republican nomination. Bruce Babbitt, the former Governor of Arizona, decided not to run against him, and since then the Arizona Democratic Party has never been able to find anyone of any stature or note to challenge McCain for the Senate seat for McCain’s re-election bids in 1992, 1998, and 2004; it would appear that unless he is elected President, the Senate seat will be McCain’s for as long as he wants it (only four men have ever held that seat before him).

Almost immediately upon entering the Senate, McCain began to stand out from the crowd. He became enmeshed in a political influence scandal involving his friend and campaign donor Charles Keating, whose banking business was going belly-up and who sought the influence of officeholders to whom he had made campaign donations to prevent the government from seizing his business. McCain was one of those five Senators and it seems that McCain did speak with banking regulators on Keating’s behalf — unsuccessfully, as it turned out. The Senate investigated the conduct of McCain and the other four Senators (all of whom were Democrats) and determined that while they broke no laws, they had exercised poor judgment in acting as they had.

McCain also stuck his neck out early and far to spearhead the efforts of his former Senate mentor, John Tower, to become the Secretary of Defense of President George H.W. Bush in 1989. The primary obstacle to Tower’s nomination was not opposition from Senate Democrats but a lack of support from the social right; in particular the Moral Majority, under the direction of Paul Weyrich, believed that Tower’s reputation for binge drinking and extramarital affairs rendered him unacceptable for that office. (Dick Cheney was eventually confirmed to that position.) McCain later wrote that Weyrich was a “pompous, self-serving son of a bitch” because of the intramural squabble over Tower, and thus began McCain’s rift with the Christian Right.

This rift plagued McCain as sought the Republican Presidential nomination in 2000, and was the only significant challenger to George W. Bush’s eventual nomination. Capitalizing upon the open and friendly relationship with the mainstream media he formed in the wake of the Keating scandal, McCain made campaign finance reform a centerpiece issue of his campaign and had long bull sessions with reporters on his campaign bus, which he nicknamed the “Straight Talk Express.” McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses completely, and won the New Hampshire primary by a margin of 19%. It was widely thought that if McCain would win the next primary in South Carolina, his momentum would render him unstoppable and defeat Bush. However, that did not happen and to this day it is not clear whether the Bush or McCain campaigns “went negative” first in South Carolina. It is clear that Bush overtly and successfully appealed to evangelical voters in South Carolina, and that McCain was unable to recover from having that bloc of voters consolidate against him. Stinging from the defeat, McCain publicly blamed leaders of the Christian Right including Jerry Falwell, and he lost most of the primaries after that.

In the Senate, he has carefully crafted a reputation as a “maverick” Republican, willing to stand in defiance of his party when his beliefs call for it. In practice, these kinds of go-against-the-party stances are actually about as frequent as they are for most other legislators, in either party. McCain and John Kerry were instrumental in prodding the Clinton Administration to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam, and he was a critical sponsor of the Line Item Veto law of 1996 (which was found to be unconstitutional two years later, in a challenge led, in no small part, by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani).

Most prominent among his legislative efforts, however, has been his pursuit of campaign finance reform, which resulted in his collaboration with liberal Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold in a very controversial donor-limitation and issue-advertisement limitation law. Its most obvious effect has been its “stand-by-your-ad” provision, which requires the personal endorsement of a candidate to any paid advertisement authorized by or issued under the control of the campaign. Less obvious to the public is the way in which individuals and corporations may make campaign donations, either directly to the individual candidates’ campaigns, to political parties, or to issue groups; the kinds of advertisements that each can sponsor; and when the advertisements can run. After several unsuccessful attempts, the law was passed in 2002, and has mostly, but not completely, been upheld by the Supreme Court.

On The Issues

Abortion: Pro-life. Would permit abortions in case of rape, incest and serious health risk. Favors repeal of Roe v. Wade (in reversal of statement he made in 1999 suggesting overturn would be a bad thing despite affirming personal opposition to most abortions). Rating: 0 of 1 points.

Amending the Constitution: Previously advocated a balanced-budget amendment. Voted for amendment authorizing criminalization of flag burning. Opposed to constitutional same-sex marriage ban. Rating: 3 of 6 points.

Anti-Terrorism Policy: Voted in favor of lavish budget for anti-terrorism activities and additional spending for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Believes spies are better than soldiers to find Osama bin Laden; adamant that doing so will not end threat of al Qaeda or the “hydra” of Islamic terrorism. Believes that inducing overthrow of rogue states will deny terrorists safe harbors and work to the long-term security of the West. Believes that there is a great deal of waste in defense spending and many programs that can be cut without reducing effectiveness of military, including the B-2 and C-130 aircraft programs and the Seawolf submarine. Rating: 4 of 7 points.

Balanced Budget: Frequently castigates his colleagues in Congress for pork barrel spending, although he does bring home some pork for Arizona himself. Has pushed hard for spending cap legislation and line item veto law (ultimately proven unconstitutional but it shows where his sentiments are). Opposed to agricultural subsidies even when campaigning in states like Iowa and Florida, where subsidies are popular. However, health care and military/anti-terrorism proposals are all expensive and tax cut platform appears to suggest possibility of irreconcilable tension between stated goals of more spending and balanced budget; cutting subsidies and waste do not by themselves appear enough to realize all three goals. Rating: 6 of 8 points.

Civil Liberties: Favors “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Against including sexual orientation in civil rights legislation. Favors USA PATRIOT Act and warrantless wiretap provisions of same. Sponsored legislation restricting ability of people to donate money to support political speech. Would favor Clinton proposal to require media products like movies and video games to bear detailed warnings about violent and sexual content. Favors gun ownership rights; voted against the Brady Bill. Rating: 1 of 9 points.

Education: Favors parental choice, home-schooling, and school vouchers. Favors merit pay for teachers. Rating: 1 of 5 points.

Environment: Opposed to drilling in ANWR. Voted against raising mandatory mileage standards for passenger vehicles, but also voted to preserve existing standards. In favor of anti-whaling legislation and voted for “brownfield remediation” funding. Rating: 3 of 4 points.

Free Trade: Favored NAFTA, CAFTA, all rounds of GATT. Opposed to fast-track authority for President. Favors normalization of trade with China and including Chile in NAFTA. Rating: 5 of 5 points.

Generalized Foreign Policy: Favors maintaining embargo with Cuba and keeping dialogue and trade with China flowing freely. Points to Libyan disarmament as a success story for the CIA and robust U.S. foreign policy. Advocates overthrow of “rogue” governments to protect U.S. security interests. Favored moderate trade sanctions against Russia for human rights violations in Chechnya; currently favors stricter trade sanctions on Burma to encourage democratization and end of human rights violations there. Critical of Bill Clinton for adopting less aggressive stance in multilateral world. Rating: 4 of 6 points.

Health Care Reform: Proposes $2,500 per-individual refundable tax credit for healthcare spending and, before creation of Medicare part “D,” proposed tax credits to subsidize senior citizens’ prescription medicine spending. Opposed to employer mandates or universal coverage. Rating: 2 of 3 points.

Immigration Policy: Sponsored the recent immigration reform bill which would have created a guest worker program and streamlined both naturalization and temporary work visas. Rating: 5 of 5 points.

Iraq: Favored invasion of Iraq. Very critical of war’s early phases of conduct; believes that an open-ended military and civil affairs commitment combined with sustained counter-insurgency strategy as led by Gen. Patraeus is the only way forward. Rating: 6 of 6 points.

Korea: Backs sending humanitarian food aid to North Korea to alleviate the human disaster caused by the death throes of the repressive government there; does not seem to acknowledge that the government there is still quite strong but does acknowledge that it is quite dangerous. Supported multi-party talks. Rating: 4 of 5 points.

Middle East Peace Process: Calls Iran and Syria sponsors of terrorism and vows strikes against them if they get nuclear weapons to prevent the use of those weapons against Israel. Does not believe diplomatic discussions with Iran would be productive. Would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Rating: 3 of 4 points.

Science and Technology: Believes in global climate change. Advocate of more nuclear power plants. Voted against human cloning but favored some embryonic stem cell research programs. Rating: 3 of 4 points.

Separation of Church and State: Mistakenly stated that the Constitution establishes the United States as a “Christian nation.” Favors school vouchers and home-schooling, school prayer time, and posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools. Would permit teaching of creationism in schools. Rating: 0 of 5 points.

Social Security Reform: Advocate of privatized savings accounts for up to 20% of SSI withholding. Willing to consider adjustment of entitlement caps, Favored using majority of Clinton budget surpluses to buttress Social Security. Opposed to new taxes to fund system in the future. Rating: 4 of 5 points.

Taxes: Wants lower tax rate with simpler tax scheme and flirted with the idea of a flat tax during 2000 Presidential campaign, but presently opposed to FairTax. Instead proposes a bipartisan commission to reform the Internal Revenue Code and putting the report of the commission to a yes or no vote in Congress. Suggested expanding range of 15% tax bracket. Voted to repeal AMT. Refuses to sign pledge against raising taxes. Initially opposed Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, but was in favor of extending them earlier this year. Rating: 3 of 5 points.

Tort Reform: Voted in favor of limiting punitive damages and class action limitations. Recently spoke in favor of “loser pays” regime for medical malpractice lawsuits, and calls medical malpractice reform the “second highest priority” of his health care reform policy. Rating: 0 of 3 points.

Torture of U.S. Prisoners: Unequivocally and absolutely opposed to torture of U.S. prisoners, including waterboarding, under any circumstances. No other candidate for President has actually been tortured personally. Rating: 4 of 4 points.

Overall Impression: I’ve agonized over McCain’s candidacy for a while. McCain is a genuine American hero who has led a remarkable and quintessentially American life; it would be impossible for me to not be impressed with his story. He should be remembered as one of the significant public figures of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, whether or not he ever attains the highest political office in the land. Despite a privileged and politically-connected background that he could have used to avoid dangerous assignments while in the Navy, he volunteered for combat duty. Even after he was captured, he refused to take the easy way out. He has also, in his political career, not taken the easy way out of problems; he faced up to his mistakes in the Keating affair and has repeatedly attempted to reconcile himself to the Christian right, with what still seems to be only lukewarm success.

In terms of policy, he is the most black-and-white candidate I have analyzed.* He is absolutely right about needing to keep a military commitment to Iraq, the way immigration policy should be reformed, free trade, and not torturing our prisoners. He is the only candidate who has demonstrated a reliable commitment to the idea of a balanced budget; whether such a goal is achievable or not, it seems he would work hard towards it. But he is also dead wrong on abortion, civil liberties and church-and-state issues. In short, within the scope of legitimate policymaking, he seems to have really good ideas; but he is in serious needs of education in Constitutional Law. Consequently, he scores either near the maximum or the minimum of nearly every policy category in my rubric.

Sadly, he is not free from the taint of corruption and he has, at best, a mixed reputation on Capitol Hill for being tempramental and difficult to work with despite his careful cultivation of an image of being a master of compromise and bipartisanship. He was voted the second-biggest “hothead” in the Senate (Kennedy took top honors). It is unclear at best how well he could leverage his considerable legislative experience to his advantage from the Oval Office, particularly given a personality that has consistently shown a disregard for norms of behavior, and seemingly uncontrollable flashes of arrogance and intemperance when challenged.

I want to like McCain because he is a hero, because he seems to have a strong moral sense, and he does seem to stand up for what he believes in (even though in many cases he is dead wrong). But he also seems to have a serious mean streak that he cannot always keep under control and sometimes does not seem to even try, and he has made some poor political judgments. It’s difficult to say whether his arrogance, corruptibility, or past mistakes are any more pronounced than similar traits held by his adversaries for the Presidency (they all have some of those traits) but they are very much on exhibit in McCain’s case.

This suggests that he would ultimately come to see Congress as an obstacle to his administration rather than as an equal partner in the enterprise of government — which is precisely the same concern that I have about Rudy Giuliani, the candidate who I have scored closest to McCain in terms of ovarall policy approval, as well as Hillary Clinton. McCain’s executive experience, though, consists of getting a naval aviation squadron squared away and a quarter century of directing legislative staff. Running the White House will be a management challenge unlike any he has taken on in his life and I question whether he has been well-prepared for this job.

Total score: 62 of 100.

* This ends my series of in-depth candidate analyses. Fred Thompson and John Edwards are both currently polling at or near 10%, the threshold I previously set for making this sort of analysis, and they are trending downward as the other candidates eclipse them. These anlayses also take quite a bit of time to research. If either of them perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire or otherwise surge in the polls, I will revisit that editorial decision.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.