Blueprint Magazine

Last March, a campaign finance reform bill finally made its way out of Congress to the White House, where George W. Bush, abandoning long-standing Republican opposition, quietly signed it despite his view that it was flawed. But this was hardly Bush’s moment. Instead, it was the crowning achievement of his one-time rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has labored tirelessly on the issue for many years, consistently provoking sharp criticism from fellow Republicans.

During the Republican primary season in 1999-2000, McCain emerged not only as Bush’s only serious political rival, but also as the embodiment of the hopes of a dissident group of Republicans for a new kind of GOP politics, one that would make a clean break with the concerns and preoccupations of the dominant Republican strains in Congress. McCain was a war hero emphasizing patriotism and personal sacrifice, in contrast to the complacent self-regard of the times and the stark anti-statism of the congressional GOP.

The leading theorist of the dissident wing was David Brooks, who in March 1997 had written a remarkable piece for The Weekly Standard called “A Return to National Greatness: Manifesto for a Lost Creed.” Brooks lamented the small-mindedness of both the times and the conservative vision, contrasting it with periods in which Americans had a more robust sense of themselves and their national purpose. ”  America is a more dominant power in the world than Americans a century ago could ever have imagined,” Brooks wrote. “Yet we have almost none of the sense of global purpose that Americans had when they only dreamed of enjoying the stature we possess today.” For Brooks, the emblematic American figure of “national greatness” was President Teddy Roosevelt, “who believed in limited but energetic government, full-bore Americanism, active foreign policy, big national projects (such as the Panama Canal and the national parks), and efforts to smash cozy arrangements (like the trusts) that retarded dynamic meritocracy.”

Could McCain be the new T.R.? The advocates of “national greatness” certainly hoped so. “Right now [McCain’s] sentiments are vague,” Brooks conceded in a September 1999 Standard article, “One Nation Conservatism,” which nevertheless portrayed McCain as the embodiment of an emerging “new Republican philosophy.”

On policy issues, McCain styled himself first and foremost as a reformer, starting with campaign finance but hardly ending there. He called for ending corporate welfare — thereby antagonizing any number of GOP-aligned big-business interests. In a bid for the mantle of superior fiscal responsibility, he promoted a tax cut smaller and more targeted to the middle class than the one George W. Bush was pushing.

McCain was also a long-time foe of pork-barrel spending, and he pledged to use the bulk of the federal budget surplus to address the long-term needs of Social Security. McCain also pressed a vision of a more robust U.S. global engagement, faulting not only the Clinton administration for irresolution and fecklessness, but also the mainline GOP for a pinched and narrow view of what the United States could or should do abroad. In 2000, McCain was talking about “rogue state rollback.” And he distanced himself from GOP realpolitik by saying he was open to U.S. intervention for humanitarian purposes, not quite vowing “no more Rwandas,” but coming close.

Whether it was the issues or the personality — he named his campaign bus the Straight Talk Express — McCain was a huge hit, especially with independent voters. He started to rise in the polls from the moment that George W. Bush emerged shakily from his Austin, Texas, redoubt. When the results came in New Hampshire, McCain was running nearly even with Bush among GOP voters and had capitalized on rules allowing independents to vote in party primaries to inflict a near-fatal blow to the front-runner.

The GOP establishment, which had long since coalesced in support of Bush, hated McCain. But clearly, he struck a chord with swing voters and was drawing a number of people into politics for the first time, especially young people. As for the dissenters within the GOP, the discontent with Bush took many forms, from a visceral dislike for the frat boy in him to the sense that he simply wasn’t up to the job, either of defeating Al Gore or of the presidency itself. If you had to boil the discontent down to a single phrase, it would probably be “small-time.” In this reading, Bush and the GOP establishment represented too little, asked too little of themselves, and were prepared to settle for too little. They had embraced a kind of least-common-denominator approach to managing their own coalition, and there was reason to worry that their approach would translate into a least-common-denominator domestic agenda and foreign policy, too.

It’s striking how neatly the differing views of Bush and McCain dovetailed with the views among the GOP intellectual set of the “national greatness” project itself. Libertarians hated it, as one might expect. And many, if not most, orthodox conservatives saw it as little more than the latest iteration of a longtime bugbear, namely, “big-government conservatism.” (This response was no doubt aggravated by the praise that the notion of “national greatness” was receiving in certain Democratic circles.)

As Brooks wrote in 1997, “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness.” In this sense, McCain and the project were well matched: McCain was a study in energy and effectiveness; yet his policy agenda is still a work in progress, falling short of a fully developed alternative to Bush-brand Republicanism. Meanwhile, as he did in the 2000 campaign, Bush has responded primarily by trying to co-opt McCain’s argument. Bush proposed his USA Freedom Corps after McCain (with DLC Chair Evan Bayh) called for a major expansion of national service. And, in the end, Bush signed McCain’s campaign finance reform bill.

So in this sense McCain and his allies have shaped their party’s agenda. But in the meantime, we have had “national greatness” thrust upon us in no uncertain terms by the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The great task of mobilizing America to wage a long campaign against terrorism has, for now at least, eclipsed the McCainiacs‘ reformist critique of the GOP.

Will these tensions within the conservative camp resurface? We’ll see. In the war on terror, “national greatness” now has a proper project, but in the GOP at least, it’s Bush’s.