01 October 2008

Election #2: Trumpeting One's Own Virtue

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 7, 2008

John McCain and his supporters think that his war-hero status provides a strong reason for voters to choose him to be President. This argument is repeated by his many supporters. In McCain’s acceptance speech, six paragraphs at the culmination of his speech focused on his wartime service. Similar emphasis at the Republican nominating convention was given by former New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani and Vice Presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

In 1967, on his 23rd bombing mission in Vietnam, McCain was shot down by a missile over Hanoi. The crash fractured both arms and a leg. When the North Vietnamese captured him, they crushed his shoulder with a rifle and bayoneted him. He was beaten and interrogated, but later given medical care when the North Vietnamese learned who his father was. He was then kept a prisoner from 1967 to 1973. In 1968, McCain’s father became the commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater. For propaganda purposes, the North Vietnamese offered McCain early release. He refused the offer of release, insisting that he could accept it only if all the persons captured before him were released first. In 1968, his captors tortured McCain, subjecting him to beatings and rope bindings. During this time, he also suffered dysentery. He attempted suicide, but was stopped by the Vietnamese prison guards. The North Vietnamese eventually broke him and he gave a meaningless propaganda “confession” that said "I am a black criminal and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate. I almost died and the Vietnamese people saved my life, thanks to the doctors."

Being broken was common among the tortured POWs. Besides flying bombing missions, something shared by other Vietnam-era pilots, McCain’s claim to hero status apparently rests on his refusing early release and not cooperating with his captors.

One reason the war-hero argument is unsound is that there is no correlation between being a war hero and being a good President. The standard left-wing list of great Presidents includes people like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, none of whom saw combat. Lincoln was in the military but did not see action. For those who think the government should leave its citizens alone, Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan also didn’t see combat and were arguably excellent.

Recent Presidents who were in the military include such mediocrities as George H. W. Bush (who squandered Reagan’s legacy) and terrible Presidents like Richard Nixon (corruption) and Jimmy Carter (an abject failure on both economic and foreign-policy fronts). Our recent history, then, suggests that military service does not provide a good indication of whether a candidate will be a successful President.

The second reason to think that McCain’s war-hero status is irrelevant is that it is probably relevant only as an indicator of integrity or courage. However, here there is more direct evidence on McCain’s integrity and it is not good. In 1989, the Senate Ethics Committee found that McCain exercised poor judgment when he interfered with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB) in their investigation of failed Lincoln Savings and Loan Association and its chairman, Charles Keating. In 1987, McCain and four other Senators pressured the federal regulators to ease up on the bank. In 1989, the FHLBB seized control of Lincoln and more than 21,000 investors, mostly elderly, lost their life savings. When it seized Lincoln, the federal government also had to assume $2 billion in debt. It is not clear how much, if any, of these losses could have been avoided if the Senators had not pressured regulators. Not only did McCain get over $100,000 in campaign contributions from Keating, but his wife and father-in-law invested in a Keating business, and McCain and his family took nine trips at Keating’s expense, including vacations to Keating’s Bahamas retreat. Unlike McCain and a fellow tarnished hero, former astronaut John Glenn (D-OH), the other members of the Keating Five had the decency not to run again.

Also, McCain is a known adulterer, who has admitted that he treated his first wife poorly. Normally this would not be the voters’ business, but McCain raised the issue when he repeatedly trumpeting his virtue on the basis of what he did in his early 30s (he is now 72).

Third, voting for candidates who run on their biography sets a bad precedent. A heroic biography is no substitute for clear guidelines on what a candidate hopes to accomplish once in office. McCain is running on his biography rather than issues. He previously opposed Bush’s tax cuts, but now supports them. He flip flopped on offshore drilling and still opposes drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Preserve (ANWR). Why the U.S. should allow drilling offshore but not ANWR remains a mystery. He previously supported amnesty for 12-20 million largely poor and unskilled illegal aliens, but now doesn’t discuss it. He claims to support Supreme Court Justices similar to Scalia and Thomas, yet helped protect the Democrats’ ability to block such judicial candidates. It is widely reported that his advisors had a hard time talking him out of selecting Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) to be his running mate, despite the fact that Lieberman is a tax-and-spend liberal. For example, in 2007 the National Taxpayers Union gave Lieberman an 11% rating, that is, an F. This leads the voter to wonder whether he is for or against tax cuts, off-shore and ANWR drilling, amnesty for illegal aliens, smaller government, and doing what it takes to appoint conservative justices.

The war-hero argument raises a separate issue, which is whether citizens should be extraordinarily grateful to those who fight foreign enemies. This country no longer makes people work in the military if they don’t want to. Like teachers, farmers, or police officers, military jobs come with a package of benefits and risks. Compared to most jobs, it is more exciting, allows for travel, job security, and exercise, and, on some accounts, improves dating and marriage prospects. Persons who enter the military via the academies get paid to receive a world-class education and often have a bright future with the military. The downside of the job is that it carries the risk that war will come and they will have to fight. Do the benefits outweigh the risks? The answer depends on the individual. If someone takes the deal because he judges it to be better than other jobs, it is hard to see why we should be grateful to him. If someone didn’t like the mix of benefits and risks, he could have done something else or held out for a better deal. The notion of overwhelming national gratitude accompanies the McCain war-hero argument, just as it did four years ago when John Kerry trumpeted his war-hero status.

John McCain is running heavily on what he did more than thirty years ago in Vietnam. History provides little evidence that being a war hero correlates with being a good President. If it is offered as evidence for McCain’s integrity, we have more direct evidence and it does not bode well for him. Voting for McCain also encourages biography-based campaigns. Even the separate claim that we should be grateful to McCain or other veterans is unclear. Sadly, despite the war-hero focus and the lack of clarity about what he will do, McCain is still a far better choice than Obama.


The Objectivist said...

McCain talks about his war-hero status because he lacks the intellectual heft and clear liberty-loving preferences that characterized people like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. He supports the bailout and has shown no awareness whatsoever of Constitutional limits on federal power (see campaign finance, cigarettes, and other micro-management positions).

The Objectivist said...

McCain was nominated because Giuliani ran a terrible campaign and Mike "The Huckster" Huckabee diluted Romney's votes.

When we add in how independents were allowed to vote in Republican primaries, it is largely an accident that he was nominated.

The Objectivist said...

We can expect McCain to be silent from now to the election on such hot-button issues as affirmative action, amnesty for illegal aliens, and legalizing marijuana. He also will not come for significantly cutting the federal budget. Such positions would take courage and a clear vision of the direction this country should move. Other than celebrating the military and political hacks like himself, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lierberman, McCain stands for nothing.

Anonymous said...

Another nice piece. You put the Keating scandal in a new light for me--that shows some serious integrity problems.

I do think despite your analysis, we owe gratitude for military service, because part of the motivation for joining the military is a sense of honor and self-sacrifice, not just the cost/benefit analysis you describe, and as a country we value honor, hence the gratitude. Perhaps it's better to say, we choose to regard military service with gratitude, rather than to say we owe it to them. But I do agree with your main point that it doesn't directly correlate to being a good president.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Ed Student:
Very interesting comments. Even if gratitude is a good incentive to get people to work in the military, as you point out it is not owed. The problem here is that gratitude essentially looks back in time, whereas the concern with incentives looks to the future. So your suggestion, while an interesting one, does not seem to be correct.