Jonathan Kulick is surely right that a Republican who wanted Romney to be President might nonetheless have good reason to prefer Obama to McCain, and equally that there might be good reasons for an Obama or Clinton supporter to prefer McCain to the other Democratic candidate. But of course there might be good reasons for any course of action; indeed, it’s a theorem that a utility function can always be constructed to yield any transitive preference ordering among alternatives.
But “could be justified” isn’t the same is “is justified.” For example, Douglas Kmiec’s critics at Powerline ask, reasonably, whether Kmiec’s favored candidate Romney was really better than McCain on the issues of war and the abuse of Presidential power. If not, then Kmiec’s argument for Obama against McCain on those issues, as valid as it seems to me, does not lie comfortably in Kmiec’s mouth.
Now those still could be good-faith arguments for Kmiec to make. Perhaps he also would have preferred Obama to Romney on those issues, but saw in Romney some virtue or set of positions that outweighed the disadvantage that Romney was campaigning as a hawk and a monarchist. (For example, Kmiec might think that Romney’s demonstrated talents at making money in the venture capital business gave evidence of managerial skill that would be valuable in a President.) Or perhaps, as a Romney adviser, Kmiec had reason to think taht Romney was insincere on those points. Or perhaps Kmiec, like some of McCain’s Republican colleagus in the Senate, simply regards the man as a dangerous lunatic who should be kept away from The Button at all costs.
But then a fellow conservative is entitled to ask Kmiec to make that case. Kmiec’s essay is deficient in not explaining the logic behind what seems at first blush like an inconsistent set of choices.
On the Democratic side, of course an Obama supporter could and vote for McCain spitefully, to punish either Hillary Clinton or her supporters for having denied the nomination to Obama. But while that would be “rational” in the very limited sense in which economists use the term, the choice to satisfy a private emotional impulse at some cost to the public interest is not “rational” in political or moral terms.
In particular, the argument “Clinton is flirting with the VRWC” or “Obama won’t fight hard for progressive principles” simply cannot be an adequate reason to support McCain, who is married to the VRWC and has no progressive principles.
Of course if an Obama supporter genuinely thought Hillary Clinton to be of worse character or temperament than John McCain, he might make a public-interest judgment that it would be better to have McCain as President, despite holding issue positions that led him to prefer Obama. But I think that would be a bizarre judgment, both because of what we know of McCain’s conduct and because of the gravity of the issue differences between either Democrat and McCain, combined with the virtually identical issue positions of the two Democrats.
I conclude that in most cases the claim “I support [Clinton or Obama] but would vote for McCain over [Obama or Clinton] in November” is either an unserious tantrum, a bluff, or a reflection of a morally unjustifiable exercise of spite. If called by a pollster today, I might say that I would vote for McCain over Clinton should that be the final choice, merely to make nominating Obama look like a better bet to other Democrats. But if the choice actually came down to McCain and Clinton, I wouldn’t hesitate for an instant before pulling the Democratic lever.
And I’m also highly confident that most of the Democrats now telling pollsters they would cross over won’t, in the end, turn out to mean it.