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The Rise and Fall of John McCain, As Explained By the Principles the Framers of the Constitution Embraced


Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008

The John McCain of today is not the man he once was - a man who, by all rights, should have been President. The nature of his rise and fall may be surprising to some modern observers, but it would not have surprised the Framers of the Constitution, for reasons I will explain.

Madison's Perspective: Even Superb Constitutional Architecture Cannot Triumph Over Human Fallibility

Once the Constitution was drafted, James Madison, its most important architect, had a moment of deep depression. This was a document that rested on human representation. What if there were not enough virtuous men to fill the positions it described and created? As good as the Constitution's architecture was, Madison knew that its success would ultimately depend on the availability and election or appointment of good leaders.

Why would Madison think in those terms? In part, because the United States' first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, had failed due to the combination of structural flaws and a surfeit of men in government (especially, in state legislatures) who abused their powers. But also, in part, because he had been educated at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, where he had been taught by University President and Presbyterian Reverend John Witherspoon that all men are gravely fallible.

The Framers constructed a system of government that rests on the good judgment of elected representatives. They considered giving the people the power to "instruct" their representatives, but in the end, they instead chose a system that delegated governing power to the elected representatives.. Although the people hold power to choose their representatives, during the term of representation, representatives are free to reach the judgments they see fit, regardless of the concerns of their constituents. Thus, it is not unconstitutional for a representative to ignore constituents to do what he or she believes is best for the country and the people.

Madison's Insight into the Need for Virtuous Leaders Has Never Been More Trenchant than Now

There are times when the machinery of the government and that of the markets work in tandem, to the country's benefit, while we also enjoy the good fortune of a relatively quiet global situation. In such times, it is less apparent how important our leaders' goodness and judgment are. President Clinton's tenure was marked by these characteristics. He will not go down in history as one of the greatest Presidents in part because his era did not face the extraordinary challenges that catapult some presidents to historic heights.

That was then. We now live in an era when there is no such peaceful coexistence of good fortune - we have a toxic combination of economic disaster, if not outright Depression, and serious threats from implacable, fanatical enemies. Thus, Madison's insight into the need for virtuous leaders has never been more important.

What is virtue in an elected representative, on Madison's terms? It is the ability to put one's own interest aside, for the purpose of achieving the larger public good. It is integrity: staying true to one's own internal compass, regardless of external pressure and resisting capture by outside interests. Finally, it is caring about what is right more than one cares about maximizing one's own power.

In presidential elections, these qualities matter far more than the programs and proposals candidates put forth. Why? Because programs and proposals can be abandoned or emptied of content once power is achieved - either because the candidate was more interested in the position of power than the program, or because other elected representatives and government officials get in the way. No matter what, though, the person who is elected retains the office and the power - to use virtuously, or abuse shamelessly.

Madison's Insights, As Applied to John McCain

Recently, John McCain has turned the corner -- devolving from the virtuous man the system needs to a less admirable human being. The turning point for moderates like myself, and for others as well, was his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Since she entered the picture, he has appeared to be running a win-at-all costs campaign that has virtually guaranteed that he should not win, especially in these difficult times.

During the 2004 primaries and also more recently, John McCain's attraction to voters across the political spectrum was based on a belief that he was a virtuous man in the very sense that Madison meant. His virtue was not that he was a "maverick," a term that has made him sound like a loner incapable of working with others, as opposed to a virtuous and visionary leader. Rather, his virtue was that he had been tested by hard experiences that had taught him self-reliance and the ability to stay in touch with higher ideals, no matter how impossible conditions became. These are extraordinary qualities given the devastating dangers we now face in the economy and from terrorist groups that purport to act in the name of Islam.

Sadly, though, McCain recently has been unable to avoid the temptations the Framers, and especially Madison, understood all too well. He permitted his desire to win to trump his deepest convictions. The Rev. Richard Land, one of the Republican kingmakers of our era, dangled the "base's" votes if McCain would only pick one of them for his Vice President. According to news reports, Palin was really Land's pick. For that part of the party, abortion is a litmus test, and she passed it with flying colors. She also opposes stem cell research - a related test.

You could see McCain looking toward the seasoned men he would want most to be next to him. One was veteran, former Pennsylvania Governor, and former head of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. Another, just as seasoned and with heavy foreign affairs experience, as well as the potential to attract Democrats, was Senator Joseph Lieberman. But McCain did not have the strength to follow his own judgment. He blinked, and when he opened his eyes, he was a new and compromised man. Standing next to him, Palin is a constant reminder of how far he has traveled from the virtue that once was the core reason for an appeal that used to cross party lines.

The Contrast Between Palin and McCain: The Virtue to Lead, and the Lack of It

Palin has become the embodiment of all that McCain has fought against - corruption, hypocrisy, and senseless federal spending. She is also the antithesis of the noble era of the Republican when its face was William F. Buckley, well-educated, well-spoken, and delightfully erudite. There was a time when some believed that McCain could restore the integrity and intellectual excellence undermined by the Bush Administration. Palin put an end to such optimistic expectations.

McCain has been a fighter against corruption in the Senate, taking a stand on ethics issues and vocally opposing outrageous earmarks. He has not cared if he was ruffling the feathers of his colleagues or some constituents. He was acting on principle. In contrast, during this campaign, Palin has been found guilty of ethics violations in the handling of state troopers' careers -- violations that were geared to serve her own family's interests. The old McCain would have scoffed at her claim that she was "cleared" simply because the state report found that she committed no crimes. She wasn't cleared. Rather, she was found by a bipartisan committee to have been unethical in the service of her own narrow interests, and she was willing to interfere with the state police force to serve those ends. The old McCain would have rejected her candidacy as soon as he learned about the investigation during the vetting stage, for he would have realized that the combination of self-dealing and disrespect for law enforcement would have intolerably contaminated what was best about his candidacy.

Until Palin, McCain's unassailable virtue had been his persistent, almost maniacal opposition to earmarks and wasteful government spending. In our current economic situation, that would have been a truly admirable and important asset. Yet, Palin was in favor of the worst earmark in history - Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere -- before being against it. The former McCain would rightly have seen her first instinct on the Bridge to Nowhere as being in intolerable tension with his most dearly-held values.

McCain, it was thought, had the rare capacity to look beyond the political moment, to the larger good. Yet, he seems to have chosen a running mate based on prevailing oil prices at the time, an issue that now has been swallowed by others: rampant mortgage foreclosures, an unsteady stock market, and a desperate national and international economy. Palin's experience with the energy companies in Alaska was supposed to make her a valuable member of his team, but her experience now looks trivial compared with the experience, smarts, and good judgment that are really needed. Gas prices are down, but at the same time, the need for experienced, intelligent, and visionary leadership has skyrocketed. His selection of her thus makes his judgment appear driven by political externals, rather than forward-looking vision.

Finally, McCain was a virtuous military man in our minds. No good military man chooses as his first officer a green recruit incapable of carrying out his orders if he is injured on the field. He wouldn't do that to his country. He might bring a promising young soldier into his inner circle to nurture and train him or her, but he would never underestimate the work and training needed to take on the rigors and demands of true leadership. There is no evidence that his choice is fit to lead, in this sense, in his absence.

It should come as no surprise that the McCain/Palin campaign has turned into little more than an attack on the character of Barack Obama. She brings no substance to the table, and, as the final presidential debate reinforced, McCain has been unable to crystallize the substantive reason or reasons that he should be President. With McCain having chosen the mud, rather than the lofty heights, the campaign has focused on bringing Obama down with him. If he cannot be virtuous, then neither can Obama - or so the logic goes.

There was that one poignant moment when McCain chided his supporters for their ugly attacks on Obama, insisting that Obama was an "honorable" man who could be a good President. For a second, the man that was John McCain shone through. That was a man who could have led us out of the darkness. He is no more.

Marci Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback.

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