John McCain’s Radical Candor

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I might not have been the first reporter to get John McCain to concede that he didn’t have much expertise on voters’ perennial top concern, but for some reason it was my version of the confession that would dog him.

“The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should,” he said on his Straight Talk Express bus while campaigning in New Hampshire on December 17, 2007, words I dutifully reported as news on the blog of the Boston Globe, for which I was covering McCain’s campaign.

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It was not quite news, however. A few weeks earlier, the senator had said a version of the same thing to the Wall Street Journal, explaining, “I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated.” And in early November, on yet another meandering New Hampshire bus ride, I had watched him bring up the subject himself. When asked what he would seek in a vice presidential candidate if nominated, McCain said he would “look for people who maybe have talents you don’t, or experience or knowledge you don’t, as well.”

“What are those qualities that you don’t — that you wouldn’t mind complementing?” asked New York Times columnist David Brooks.

McCain paused. “Uh, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but: somebody who’s really well-grounded in economics,” he said.

“I think I understand the fundamentals, I talk to people all the time on economics — it’s obviously a vital part of America’s future,” he continued. “But I know there are some people who have literally immersed themselves on issues of economics, how Congress works on it, the tax code, that sort of thing. I would look for that kind of talent not in a vice president but in close advisers.”

“They are complicated,” McCain said of economic issues, “and I freely admit I am not an economist.”

In an election year that would conclude amid a global financial crisis, this riff was as politically unwise as it was disarming. Such moments of self-effacing candor were common for McCain, especially for those of us who joined him for many hours each day in loose, open-ended discourse without any interference or traffic control from his staff. Throughout his life, McCain brought a particular affect of modesty to any discussion of his public service. “Made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of errors, but served his country, and I hope you could add ‘honorably,’” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper when asked, not long after his cancer diagnosis last year, how he would like to be remembered.

But the exchanges about his economic aptitude revealed a different McCain trait, one that marked him as unusual among national political figures yet rarely cited by his admirers. Much will be made by them this week of the areas to which McCain devoted his considerable political energies, but I was always struck by the policy areas in which he was willing to betray unfamiliarity, a lack of sophistication or even a lack of interest.

Anybody who watched McCain understood he knew a lot less about economics than military foreign policy issues because he cared much less about them, and he did not pretend otherwise. It was perhaps the most useful insight into what he would have done in office.

American presidential campaigns, after all, have proved competent at extracting detailed policy commitments from candidates. (Donald Trump is, as always seems to be the case, the exception here.) Interest groups, editorial boards and debate moderators are usually able to get them to describe their preferred outcomes, and often an understanding of the mechanisms they would use and the policy trade-offs they would be willing to make to get there. But this routine offers little insight into a future president’s governing style, and often the stridency and specificity that politicians are expected to bring to all their policy commitments merely obscures their actual priorities. A candidate commits to delivering an overhaul of the tax code, to passing employment-law reforms, to making regulatory adjustments to oversight of nuclear power plants, to appointing judges with a certain perspective on abortion and to enacting a shift in American foreign policy in Asia. But what will the new president put first, before the agenda is overtaken by crisis or circumstance? And what won’t he be willing to trade away for progress on another front?

McCain dispensed with the charade of being catholic in his priorities. Forty-five years old and new to partisan politics when he first announced a run for Congress, he had not been groomed for the kabuki required of candidates, and never overcame his innate impatience with it. He ran unabashedly as a celebrity candidate — he advertised himself as “a name Arizonans are talking about” — without ever trying to define himself ideologically. When he got to Washington, he brought an interest in national-security issues grounded in his own experience, less that of wartime service itself than his stint afterward as the Navy’s congressional liaison, which not only introduced him to the work of a senator (and let him befriend future colleagues) but forced McCain to develop some expertise in the Pentagon’s policy concerns.

Otherwise, issues came and went from McCain’s radar, earning temporal consideration due to circumstance, shifting enthusiasms and the intersection of policy questions with personal experience. While never an isolationist, he had been a consistent skeptic of American military intervention abroad, opposing peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Haiti and, at first, Bosnia. Only after the massacre at Srebrenica, in 1995, did McCain endorse deployment of American troops in the Balkans. Around that time, a new fixation on money in politics — a form of penitence for his role in the Keating Five scandal — led him on crusades against the tobacco industry and for campaign-finance reform.

Both figured heavily in his 2000 presidential campaign, but after the September 11, 2001, attacks McCain’s focus turned largely from domestic reform back to foreign policy, beginning an era in which he would become one of the most reflexively hawkish advocates of American power, tempered only by impassioned criticism of torture informed by his time as a victim of it while a prisoner of war. McCain would never again, in a major way, evince much concern about public-health issues or campaign-finance regulations, even after the Supreme Court gutted the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Act he co-authored with Democrat Russ Feingold, through a series of decisions, including Citizens United v. FEC.

His curiosity ranged widely, and always appeared sincere as it did. At town hall meetings, he would pose questions back to citizens who had come to interrogate him, willing to betray ignorance about the issues they held dear. Even in the areas he knew well, he showed deference to the expertise and experiences of others. I recall vividly the times he redirected an interview once he learned the reporter assigned to cover him had spent time as a war correspondent; long disquisitions about localized conditions in Iraq were sure to follow. At the same time, he didn’t made a performance of phony interest in a topic like, say, education policy that was beyond his ken. That attitude applied to his more formal communications, as well. Unlike many of his colleagues, McCain never felt the need to weigh in on every issue of the day.

Over the course of his career, McCain maintained some notable blind spots. He was never really interested in questions about the social safety net — one reason it might have been easier for him than other Republicans to buck Trump on repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which McCain justified on procedural rather than policy grounds. And while he grew to identify deeply with the struggles of Latinos and Native Americans in his home state, he frequently looked past civil-rights questions as they applied to African-Americans. (McCain would eventually apologize both for opposing the holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and supporting the presence of the Confederate battle flag on the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol.) As risk in global credit markets gradually emerged as the dominant issue over an 18-month presidential campaign in which he would have much rather discussed counterinsurgency strategy or the contours of an immigration crisis, McCain found himself stranded in a foreign land.

But all politicians have blind spots, or probably should. It is an unreasonable expectation that anyone serious about anything should care equally about the tax code, labor regulations, energy provision, women’s reproductive policy and Asian geostrategy, and yet too many in public life are motivated to fake it. As a candidate, Barack Obama spoke with equivalent passion and authority about changing the country’s health-care regime as reforming its immigration laws and combating climate change. Only in retrospect do we know which one he found most worthy of his political capital.

The “economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should” quote from my blog post featured in attacks on McCain from both Mitt Romney and Obama. The Democratic nominee ran ads featuring a parody of “What a Wonderful World,” with the song’s lyrics altered as though they came from McCain. I’m not up on the economy, a feeble replacement for Sam Cooke sang. Don’t know much about industry. Once Lehman Brothers collapsed weeks later, those remarks from McCain — and a subsequent remark that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” — helped to doom him as ill-suited to lead a country entering a recession. (By then, McCain had demonstrated that “well-grounded in economics” was no longer a key prerequisite when actually given a chance to select a running mate.) But the candor was usefully clarifying for voters.

In another conversation I had with McCain in New Hampshire that November, I challenged him about the discontinuities in his both his positions and priorities over the years. He explained to me that he did not feel burdened by prior commitments; in political life he saw only challenges and opportunities, not constants. “A lot of things in the past have a tendency to disappear,” he said. “It’s all about what’s happening now.”

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