Assessing McCain:

In two insightful posts, University of San Diego law professor Michael Rappaport argues that John McCain is very bad on a wide range of policy issues and that pro-limited government conservatives might well be better off with a Democratic candidate winning this fall than with a President McCain.

I agree with most of the points Michael makes in his first post. On two of the issues he raises (immigration and torture/interrogation) my position is much closer to McCain's than Michael's is. I also give McCain great credit for opposing Bush's 2003 Medicare prescription drug plan - the biggest of all the Bush Administration's domestic policy boondoggles. He was one of only nine GOP senators to buck the administration on that issue.

I therefore give McCain higher grades on policy than Michael does. Nonetheless, the overall picture Michael paints is far from a positive one. McCain seems less of a big government conservative than Bush has turned out to be. But the difference is more one of degree than kind. On judges, I agree with Michael's suspicions that McCain might appoint moderate to liberal "stealth" nominees to the Supreme Court in order to preserve his beloved McCain-Feingold campaign finance restrictions. I'm not certain about that, but it's a real possibility.

I am much less convinced by Michael's argument that the cause of limited government will be better off in the long run if the Democrats win. Michael argues that, just as Jimmy Carter's failures in office paved the way for Ronald Reagan, the shortcomings of a Hillary Clinton or Obama administration will pave the way for a Reaganite resurgence. By contrast, if McCain wins, the Republicans will end up adopting his pro-government agenda if he is politically successful or will be blamed for his shortcomings if he fails in office.

Maybe Michael is right. But Carter failed to win reelection in large part because he was the victim of circumstances outside his control: a severe recession and the emergence of foreign policy crises in Iran and Afghanistan. Had he been luckier and a more skillful politician, he might not have lost in 1980. In all three cases, Carter probably made a bad situation worse. But his bumbling would have been much less noticeable to the electorate if he had been blessed with better circumstances. By contrast, the next president will probably enjoy a favorable economy two or three years into his term (once the current pseudo-recession ends). And we don't yet know how international events will play out. When you consider that Obama and Hillary are both more skillful politicians than Carter, and that Obama at least is highly charismatic, it's quite possible that a Democratic president will enjoy considerable political success. Unlike Michael, I am not convinced that the Democrats will repeat the political mistakes of Bill Clinton's first two years in office. They (especially Hillary) might well have learned from those errors and be more effective in enacting their agenda this time around.

The Dems might turn out to be a political success even if they adopt policies that cause great longterm harm (as I think is quite likely). The harm may not yet be apparent to voters in 2012 or even 2016. Even when it does become evident, rationally ignorant voters might lack the knowledge necessary to connect it to the big government policies enacted by the Democrats years earlier.

Finally, even aside from McCain's strengths and weaknesses as an individual, there are great benefits to divided government. As I argue here and here, it's one of the best ways of limiting the growth of government power. Since the Democrats are almost certain to retain control of both houses of Congress and Mitt Romney has almost no chance of winning the general election, John McCain may be the only hope for maintaining divided government in 2008.

Maybe Michael is right to suppose that things will go better in the long run if the Democrats win than if McCain becomes president. But I have even more doubts about that scenario than I do about McCain himself. McCain is very far from ideal. But his election might well be a lesser evil than the available alternatives.

UPDATE: I have deliberately avoided discussion of the war in this post. If you support a quick withdrawal from Iraq, Obama is probably your best bet, followed by Hillary Clinton (though neither is likely to withdraw quite as fast as many liberals want). My own view on Iraq is somewhat similar to McCain's, who gets credit in my book for favoring a "surge" long before Bush came around. However, I don't really have anything to say about the issue that hasn't already been said by others with greater expertise.

UPDATE #2: Michael Rappaport responds to this post here. I lack the time to respond in detail and in any event our views are not that far apart. However, I will briefly respond to Michael's claim that the usual benefits of divided government won't happen under McCain because "McCain enjoys his maverick, bipartisan reputation and will only be too happy to sign many of the Democrats’ bills." It is true that McCain probably would sign some Democratic bills that Michael and I would both find objectionable. However, he would be unlikely to cave in to the Democrats on a wide range of important issues, including spending and foreign policy. The key comparison is not between divided government and some ideal state, but between divided government with McCain and united government with the Democrats controlling the presidency and both houses of Congress. Given the Democrats' likely agenda, the latter scenario could well lead to a major expansion of government that will be difficult to undo even if the Republicans return to power in 2012 or 2016.