Thursday, September 25, 2008

John McCain -- maybe not such a great civil libertarian

If Barack Obama missed some opportunities to differentiate himself from the Bush administration on civil liberties issues, John McCain actively turned around, walked away and ducked around the corner when he saw his own chances coming down the block.

We always hurt the ones we love

Well, that's unkind. the senator from Arizona does oppose torture. It's unbelievable that support for or opposition to torture is actually a point of contention in American politics, but it is, and McCain has actually been tortured. Real-life experience inspired him to come down on the side of the angels with a 2005 amendment to "bar cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of anyone held in custody anywhere in the world by any agency of the U.S. Government."

Of course, he did vote to let the CIA have a pass when it comes to restrictions on interrogation techniques.

And, from there it's ... well, you'll see.

Can I get a gentleman's "F"?

John McCain has a lifetime rating of 22% from the ACLU and a 17% score for the 110th Congress. In the current Congress, he voted against barring the government from engaging in mass interception of communications, against stripping telecommunications companies of immunity from lawsuits over their collaboration with the government on illegal wiretaps, against greater safeguards for private communications, against restoring habeas corpus to detainees and for warrantless wiretaps.

He also flat-out missed a lot of votes on issues including Real ID and the gag rule preventing organizations that receive tax funds from providing abortion information.

On the plus side, he opposed increased regulation of grassroots political activity.

Pass on the doobie

John McCain famously sparred with a medical marijuana advocate at a New Hampshire town hall meeting. Saying "the fact is, I do not approve of the use of medical marijuana," he made his position crystal clear.

Ironically, considering that his wife's fortune is based on the sale of beer, McCain is an enthusiastic drug warrior. On the campaign trail, he has called for increased prosecution of the war on drugs, and even linked the black market in illicit intoxicants to terrorism. "The war on terror has taken some of our attention off the drug problem, drug cartels, and by many measurements they are getting a lot stronger rather than weaker. I think it's damaging to our national security when the drug usage is up."

He has also, in the past, pushed to restrict the availability of methadone for heroin addicts, execute "drug kingpins" (and endorsed (PDF) the death penalty for federal crimes) and advocated funding drug-prohibition efforts in other countries.

To his credit, he has praised his state of Arizona's voter-approved policy of putting some drug users in rehab instead of behind bars, saying (PDF), "we have too many first time drug offenders in prison."

No choice for you

Think McCain has a low ACLU score? Check out his NARAL rating (PDF) of 0% for every year since 1999. He did pull 10% in 1998 and 1992, if that matters.

In his televised meeting with Pastor Rick Warren, John McCain said, "I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies. That's my commitment, that's my commitment to you."

In terms of policy, this means a promise to pick judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade.

Joined with Obama in (gay) matrimony

Oddly enough, McCain's conservative position on marriage -- he told Pastor Rick Warren, "A union between man and woman, between one man and one woman, that's my definition of marriage" -- combined with a dose of federalism, has positioned him pretty close to rival Sen. Barack Obama on gay marriage. They both want to leave the matter to the states though, unlike the Illinois senator, McCain supports the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and allows states to snub unions sanctified elsewhere.


On the right to bear arms, John McCain is an enthusiastic Second Amendment supporter who ...


Actually, it was only a few years ago that the NRA was tagging John McCain with a mediocre C+ lifetime rating. (The harder-line Gun Owners of America still gives him an F.) He's a mixed bag on self defense, advocating background checks on private-party sales at gun shows and at least considering bans on inexpensive handguns and so-called "assault weapons."

But he has also voted to block lawsuits intended to bleed firearms manufacturers into bankruptcy, and his Website now specifically denounces bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and the confiscation of weapons during emergencies (an issue after Hurricane Katrina).

In a year when even former gun-banners seeking the presidency as Democrats have unconvincingly discovered a new-found love for the individual right to bear arms, John McCain is doing his best to sound like Charlton Heston. Well, like Heston did when he was alive.

Put a cork in it

If there is one civil liberties issue that can get people across the political spectrum frothing at the mouth about John McCain, it's his propensity to view criticism by opponents as an abuse of the political system, and to try to ban it in the name of "campaign finance reform." No joke -- McCain once said on Don Imus's radio show, "I would rather have a clean government than one where quote First Amendment rights are being respected, that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I'd rather have the clean government."

He hasn't done it alone, of course -- the offending legislation was called McCain-Feingold, after all. The ACLU denounced the legislation, saying it "contains an unprecedented attack on issue advocacy by nonpartisan groups and organizations." After it became law, Jonathan Rauch wrote in Reason magazine, "America now has what amounts to a federal speech code, enforced with jail terms of up to five years."

My take

Proudly saying, "My friends, each and every one of us has a duty to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest," John McCain makes few bones about the fact that he's not really the sort of politician who puts individual freedom at the center if his political philosophy. Big-government nationalist Teddy Roosevelt is his idol, and his own politics fit the same mold, with what Reason editor Matt Welch, author of a book on McCain, calls "a rigid sense of citizenship and a skeptical attitude toward individual choice."

The one issue on which McCain has really broken with the Bush administration to push for the rights of the individual is on torture, something with which he has intimate experience. This reinforces my theory that aspirants to government office should probably first spend a year getting abused in every way available to the modern state. Months of censorship, tax audits, wiretaps and regulatory excess might give more political hopefuls the sort of "Ah Ha!" moment that the Arizona senator had on waterboarding.

A McCain administration would probably be fairly respectful of the right to bear arms, if only to keep the Republican base from deserting in disgust. But on most other issues, we could probably expect little mercy for us soft types who want a restrained government -- or at least to be able to bitch about a lack of restraint.

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