The shortcoming was intellectual as well as bureaucratic. Like Jimmy Carter, the only Naval Academy graduate to reach the Oval Office, McCain had an engineer’s approach to policymaking. He had no large principles that he could apply to specific problems; each fresh question set off a search for a “practical” solution. He instinctively looked back to Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive era, with its high-mindedness and disdain for the politics of doling out favors to interest groups.
Yes, in McCain’s time all plebes got a BS in naval engineering, except that he was not much of an engineering student and is no engineer:
[H]e was an academic misfit: a literature and history buff in nerd territory.
“All the courses were about naval boilers, 16-inch guns, electrical engineering, those kinds of things,” McCain recalled. Did he feel like he was in the wrong place? “Sure, as far as the course of study is concerned. But I also was cognizant that when I graduated, then I could go fly airplanes and never have to worry about naval boilers or 16-inch guns ever again.”
I’m an engineer turned policy analyst, and I’m not sure what an “engineer’s approach to policymaking” is, but it surely is not unprincipled, just use-enough-duct-tape-and-WD-40-to- keep-it-running. Engineers apply scientific principles to produce useful products and processes. They are reality-based; solutions must meet constraints of physical laws, available resources, and societal norms. They validate the fruits of their intuition and creativity by rigorous testing. Not a bad approach to policymaking.
I expect that McCain appreciates the comparison to Carter, however inapt, as much as Carter did being called Jimmy Hoover. Their failures in leadership reflect more on their (typical) engineer’s temperament than on their approach to problem solving. As a legislator McCain lacked a grand vision, but that’s not what engineers apply to solve problems. Be grateful for that the next time you cross a bridge.
Update: The National Society of Professional Engineers names eleven members of Congress who have degrees in engineering. Hmm, which senator is conspicuous by his absence?