The Maverick

John McCain is the only hero running for President. His refusal to abandon comrades at the Hanoi Hilton is a stirring page in American history, and presaged the courage it took to continue supporting the Iraq war when nothing seemed to be going right. Indeed, as he retorted to Rudy Giuliani at the recent South Carolina debate, McCain did not just support a troop surge after the fact; the senator demanded a greater commitment while Democrats and even some Republicans sought surrender.

That crusty, cantankerous courage is one reason McCain has been called a maverick. It is a description that appeals to the would-be hero in all of us.

But it's risky to focus on personality to the exclusion of policy. True, character often trumps agendas. Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush never thought they'd be war leaders. War revealed a strain of idealism in both of them that critics found misguided, or worse. Voters can't predict events that may shape presidencies, so it's important to consider character when sizing up candidates. But policy positions are important, too.

Senator Barack Obama, for instance, is an inspirational orator of a new generation who promises to effect change while bringing Americans together. But since one change he's proposing is a speedy withdrawal from Iraq, it's hard to see how he can bring along those who believe the surge is leading us toward victory.

We could and will examine all the other candidates in this light, but let's start with Senator McCain, since he's the latest to be dubbed "inevitable" by some pundits, especially if he wins Michigan and South Carolina.

McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts because they were not coupled with spending cuts. Fiscal conservatives oppose out-of-control earmarks and other spending still spiraling under President Bush. But, many conservatives ask, what does this have to do with tax cuts?

As they see it, flattening income tax rates increases revenue. Ronald Reagan believed this and so did John F. Kennedy. Their far more dramatic across-the-board cuts, as well as those of George W. Bush, increased economic activity, stimulated growth and flooded the treasury with tax revenue. While fiscal conservatives join McCain in calling for less spending as well as lower taxes, they do not believe one is needed to justify the other.

Beyond demanding spending restraints as a condition of cutting taxes, Senator McCain had another reason for opposing across the board cuts, one that he explained to me personally in 2000 when he let local reporters climb aboard his Straight Talk Express. (This, by the way, was quite unusual and much appreciated. By contrast, Senator Clinton rarely talks with national reporters.)  McCain said "the rich" don't need tax cuts. Putting aside the question of who is rich (and the fact that truly rich people often shelter their income with tax-free instruments) McCain's critics say his attitude justifies a wholesale redistribution of income. In any event, they note that since the Bush rate reductions took effect, upper income taxpayers have paid a greater percentage of the total tax burden - because increased economic activity increased their income. And they deny that raising upper income rates would put any more money into the pockets of people who earn less, except in the form of transfer payments that force capital and jobs to move elsewhere.

What would fiscal conservatives do to increase everyone's incomes? Cut everyone's taxes even more! Liberals derisively brand this "trickle down" economics, but conservatives insist it works.

The Bush across-the-board tax cuts are set to expire in 2010. Senator McCain now says he would support extending them. But what does his earlier opposition say about his basic world-view?

Put that opposition together with the McCain-Feingold restrictions on political advertising before elections - which critics call a clear violation of the First Amendment -- and McCain's sponsorship of a comprehensive immigration bill -- which critics said amounted to amnesty without any guarantee of border enforcement (McCain now calls for securing the border first) -- and what you're left with is a hero, and a maverick, but hardly a conservative.

However, having said all this, the question for conservatives is: Who is more to their taste -- and more electable?