The Rebellion continues, but even Princess Leia must be losing hope. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the self-styled Luke Skywalker of the GOP, not only has failed to blow up the Republican Death Star, but he is now in danger of being trapped and humbled by the dreaded party Establishment.
Although last-minute heroics usually save the day in Hollywood, in American politics they rarely succeed. Faced with losses in Virginia, North Dakota and Washington state and with a probable loss in the California primary next week McCain is running out of ways to defeat Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. Nonetheless, theirs is a classic duel that reveals a lot about each man and about contemporary conservatism.
So far the contest has revealed three main contrasts between the two candidates.
Bush keeps saying that he is "a uniter, not a divider," and he means it. From the beginning, his campaign strategy was to emphasize the positive about America and about the GOP. He wanted to distance himself both from Judge Robert Bork's despair that America was "slouching towards Gomorrah" and from Newt Gingrich's take-no-prisoners partisanship.
Bush's policy proposals, therefore, were sensible, detailed and "inclusive" i.e., designed to appeal to a moderate and basically friendly audience. "I've learned that you cannot lead by dividing people," he said, promising to give America "a fresh start after a season of cynicism."
The problem is that in politics, you often have to divide people before you can unite them. Thus it was Bush, not McCain, who first criticized (gently, to be sure) his rival conservatives in order to unite the party around his own brand of "compassionate conservatism."
By contrast, McCain's light-saber attacks on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were bold and bloody because McCain does not expect to win by gentle jostling and conciliation. McCain sees the political world divided starkly between friends and enemies.
The enemies are the "special interests," those insidious forces that have stolen the American government from the people. Like the "evil" leaders of the religious right who supposedly had betrayed their followers, these enemies need to be denounced and confronted, not to say eviscerated.
For a popular leader to challenge these selfish forces requires courage, not compassion, and McCain, who is a war hero, does not hide his bravery. In the speech announcing his candidacy, he proclaimed, "I am not afraid," no less than five times. Such unnecessary boasting sounds a little angry which is dangerous for a Jedi-in-training.
Bush and McCain both call for an end to the political cynicism bred by the Clinton administration. Yet each offers a different antidote, a different account of the one thing needful.
Bush celebrates the basic decency of American society, and so appeals to the spirit of family and faith in order to elicit a moral revival in the land. He rallies "the armies of compassion" in order to close "the gap of hope" between haves and have-nots; he reminds Americans that prosperity must have a moral purpose.
Bush wants to "change the culture," but he recognizes that culture changes slowly, "one soul at a time," and that churches and charities do a better job of this than government. Hence he calls, modestly, for government to assist faith-based charities in doing what they can do best.
For Bush, the way up from cynicism and selfishness runs squarely through civil society, and especially through its churches and synagogues. Civil-society conservatives like Myron Magnet and conservative communitarians like Marvin Olasky inspire his policies and rhetoric. Even Bush's tax cuts are premised, to some degree, on the notion that families and individuals will spend their own money more responsibly more compassionately than would government.
More like a revival than a crusade, Bush's campaign attracts both religious and economic conservatives by emphasizing the superiority of civil society to the state. Yet the flap over his appearance at Bob Jones University in South Carolina shows the weakness in this approach: Bush appeared surprised that such a benighted place exists nowadays, amid the supposedly sunny landscape of civil society.
McCain, however, lost no time in condemning Bob Jones as bigoted and racist. For McCain, Bob Jones confirmed that through political leadership, not religion or civil society, the American people must be united and ennobled. Religion, he implied, is too divisive and eccentric to be relied on as a source of political consensus; a benign patriotism is needed to upbraid religious opinion.
The university's policies (against interracial dating, among other things) were heretical, he pronounced, mostly because they were un-American. They offended against "the faith of our fathers" (the title of McCain's autobiography). This faith, summed up in the Declaration of Independence, teaches, according to McCain, a patriotism that requires all good citizens to be ready to flee their private interest for the sake of the public interest.
Yet McCain never spells out how this politics of noble citizenship would work, nor does he explain how in pluralistic America the public interest should be determined. Instead, his campaign functions as a kind of general crusade against selfishness, so much so that he disclaims all "personal ambitions," as though he were indifferent even to the honor of being elected president.
Bush displays a panoply of well-articulated domestic policies, as if to anticipate and refute the charge that he shares his father's problem with "the vision thing." This impressive array of policies, however, does not add up to a bold principle, and so he is still dogged by the question, "Why?"
Nonetheless, there is something admirable about Bush's old-fashioned, and barely concealed, opinion that his reason for seeking the presidency is to have the honor of faithfully discharging the duties of the office, not to launch the country on some foolish, government-sponsored crusade. Bush presumes that the people are capable of governing themselves and that civil society normally can handle its own problems. Neither presumption is airtight, but each is truer than its opposite.
McCain inspires more political passion than Bush, and he would love to upset the applecart and realign the political parties an ambition that apparently has not crossed Bush's mind. But McCain's hero, Teddy Roosevelt, came closer finally to wrecking than to re-founding his party, and McCain seems poised to emulate him.
In other words, the Force is strong in McCain, but he has never learned to control it. And you do not have to be Yoda to know where that leads.
For all McCain's protests, he, like Bush, lacks a principle or set of principles around which a reinvigorated GOP could permanently rally. "Reform" is not a principle, alas. In McCain's hands, it is more like a panacea, or rather two panaceas. The first is his version of campaign finance reform, which is unwise, un-republican, and unconstitutional.
Behind this, however, is a second cure-all: McCain himself, who seems more and more like Bolingbroke's Patriot King, the King with only one principle: patriotism. You cannot build a political party around so free-floating and self-reverential a concept, but as McCain is demonstrating, you sure can distract one.