Imagine if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had said after the conclusion of fellow Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster, “I don’t like everything Senator Rand Paul said in his amazing filibuster . . . . against the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director. But I love to death that he said it.” He would have come across as gracious, thoughtful and tempered. But that quote was from the liberal columnist Margaret Carlson. Instead, as he has done so many times in his career, McCain lost his cool with Rand Paul and sounded like the old man down the street screaming to the new kids on the block, “Get off my lawn!”

CIA director John Brennan-Washington Post

It was worse than that actually. It is one thing for McCain to revive the personal animosity many conservatives have felt toward the senator so enamored of garnering media elite opinion and so dismissive of the First Amendment (e.g. campaign finance reform). But he did something worse. Like the social conservatives who backed Todd Akin, he hurt the cause he has fought for.

The complaint against many GOP hawks is that they have been rash and too enamored of executive authority. They’ve been too Pollyannaish about the Arab Spring, say their critics. And while defense needs defending, they haven’t been very effective or creative in gaining savings that don’t impair national security. And there in his post-filibuster rant was McCain, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in tow, reaffirming all those perceptions.

It is ironic because McCain has been ineffectively trying to extract all sorts of information from the Obama team on national security since 2009. You would think he’d see the larger picture here and recognize that the benefit of challenging Obama on drones might help him in his fight for information he deems important. But no. That’s not McCain’s style.

McCain has always been more gracious and forgiving toward Democrats than his own party. Some attribute this to his zeal for mainstream media approval. Others point to his pugnacious personality and Groucho Marx-like aversion to any club (or party) that will have him as a member.

Whatever the reason, he is making a serious error of the type that recently has plagued many conservatives in a variety of policy arenas. A policy with no limits is not sustainable. And an approach to foreign or domestic policy that shuns prudence, balance and recent experience isn’t conservative.

Peter Berkowitz, author of the “Constitutional Conservatism,” wrote in December 2012 about conservatism in other policy realms:

Some conservatives worry that giving any ground—in regard to the welfare and regulatory state, the sexual revolution, or both—is tantamount to sanctifying a progressive status quo. That is to mistake a danger for a destiny. Seeing circumstances as they are is a precondition for preserving one’s principles and effectively translating them into viable reforms.

It is a mistake for conservative hawks is to view any limitation (constitutional, fiscal, real world) as a threat to their well-meaning effort to maintain U.S. influence in the world. In fact, it is only with respect for some limits on the executive, understanding of fiscal restraints and, most important, an appreciation for whom we are dealing with (friend or foe) that an internationalist foreign policy can be sustained.

At some point McCain begins to hurt more than help that endeavor. If you want to promote pro-life views you better not nominate Richard Mourdock, and if you want to win adherents to a responsible but robust foreign policy. . . well, let’s just say it is better to have a spokesman who doesn’t scare the living daylights out of the public.