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The Curious Mind of John McCain

John McCain, who retrenched after his failed 2000 presidential bid, said this attempt is going well: "If I win this campaign, "historians will say, 'He was a genius' " who adapted under pressure.
John McCain, who retrenched after his failed 2000 presidential bid, said this attempt is going well: "If I win this campaign, "historians will say, 'He was a genius' " who adapted under pressure. (By Scott Olson -- Getty Images)

For example, in a speech this past spring, McCain called for expelling Russia from the Group of Eight, the club of leading economic powers, on the grounds that Russia is not a real democracy. Not long after, he gave a speech in Denver on arms control and suggested that the United States "can work in partnership with Russia to strengthen protections against weapons of mass destruction."

"Would that happen before or after we kick them out of the G-8?" quipped a Republican arms control expert who held high positions in previous Republican administrations.

Asked about this, McCain seemed to back off the threat to expel Russia from the G-8. "Well, you know," he said, "I'd like to send them a hard signal [but] . . . you need to work with them in areas of common interest." But Sunday on ABC's "This Week," McCain returned to the idea of expelling Russia from the G-8. "We need to improve their behavior," he said.

McCain has promised to appoint more Supreme Court judges like John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Both of them signed recent opinions that narrowed the application of McCain's greatest legislative monument, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. Lawyers who follow the issue say Roberts and Alito appear dubious about the constitutionality of some aspects of the law, which governs campaign contributions.

If a President McCain appointed more justices like Roberts and Alito, would that mean the death of the law?

"I don't know if it will or not, but I think you've got to have people who you think would interpret the Constitution of the United States most accurately," McCain replied. "Whether that means that certain decisions go for or against you, then I think we just have to -- obviously you can't have litmus tests."

Philosophically, McCain has never been easily pigeonholed, perhaps because philosophy doesn't interest him. But in Republican Party politics, philosophy is an important identifier. This year McCain has courted the conservative Republican base, casting himself as a "small-government, low-tax" Reagan Republican. But he acknowledges, when asked, he is really a Theodore Roosevelt Republican, and TR was hardly a conservative. He favored aggressive government regulation of the economy and a stiff inheritance tax -- both part of the Square Deal he pushed as his domestic agenda. TR also radically expanded the national park system and brought hundreds of millions of acres under federal protection or ownership. He was the country's first progressive president.

McCain has acknowledged that modern conservatives have been more hostile to government than he. "Many contemporary conservatives have let their healthy skepticism about government sink into something unhealthy, an embittered loathing of the federal government," McCain and Salter wrote in "Worth the Fighting For." A good government "must not shrink from its duty to be the highest expression of the national will and the last bulwark against all assaults on our founding ideals," which include liberty and opportunity.

In last week's interview, McCain recalled and embraced another TR quotation: "Unfettered capitalism leads to corruption. We are seeing that with the subprime lending crisis."

Reticence About the Campaign

Topic A for McCain this summer is the presidential election, but he hasn't shared much of his own analysis of the race. Obama has provided running commentary on the campaign, telling Dan Balz of The Washington Post last Friday, for example, that his trip to the Middle East and Europe "may not be decisive for the average voter right now, given our economic troubles, but it's knowledge they can store in the back of their minds for when they go into the polling place later." Noting the novelty of his candidacy, Obama has predicted that many Americans will remain uncommitted until much later in the campaign.

McCain has offered little analysis of the electorate's reaction to him or the path he hopes to follow to victory in November. Although he hammers Obama in public appearances, he also has respectful words for his opponent. In the interview last week, he said, "I'm surprised that I am as close in the polls as I am right now. When you look at the fantastic campaign that Senator Obama has waged, it really is quite remarkable."

Two books that McCain has not read are the bestsellers written by Obama. Isn't he curious about his opponent? "Well, I've been watching DVDs of his debates," McCain replied, "and I pay attention to his speeches."

Does this combination of respect for Obama's campaign and apparent indifference to his books suggest another example of McCain's romantic fatalism? Salter, the alter ego, emphatically rejected that idea. "I can tell you right now," he said of McCain, "he can't stand losing. . . . And sometimes when he's losing, it's not all romantic and glorious. He gets pretty tough. . . . He's as resilient a human being as I've ever encountered. There are no permanent defeats for him."

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