McCain and the “threshold”

Just on the record, he seems to be a less fit candidate for Commander-in-Chief than Barack Obama. Does Hillary Clinton really think otherwise?

Put aside for the moment the political question about whether one Democrat running for President should express in public the opinion that the Republican nominee is qualified to be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces but her rival for the Democratic nomination is not qualified. What is the basis for the claim that John McCain has crossed the “Commander-in-Chief threshold”?

I can imagine several bases for that claim.

1. McCain graduated from Annapolis and served in the Navy, rising to the rank of Captain (the Navy equivalent of an Colonel).

2. He heroically endured torture at the hands of the Vietnamese Communists, refusing early release.

3. He has served a long stretch in the House and the Senate; in the Senate he has served on Armed Services.

But when you look at the details, none of those arguments look very impressive.

McCain got into Annapolis because his father and grandfather were senior admirals. He graduated by the skin of his teeth: fifth from the bottom of his class. In addition to being no better than mediocre in class, he was notoriously undisciplined. Whether nepotism kept him in the Naval Academy as well as getting him admitted in the first place there’s no way of knowing.

On graduation, McCain found his niche as a pilot, where it’s possible to rise to fairly high rank without commanding a substantial group of fighters. He continued to behave like a spoiled, privileged brat, earning himself the active dislike of many of his peers. Returning from captivity as a hero, and with his father’s friends still important among the Navy brass, McCain was never promoted to Admiral, though he served creditably in his one command post, running an A-7 training squadron and turning it around. That three years of managerial experience trumps both of his rivals, but on an abolute scale three years of managing a modest-sized enterprise thirty years ago is not a strong credential for running the entire executive branch. (McCain’s only private-sector executive experience was running public relations for his second father-in-law’s beer distributorship.)

In sum, while his military career allowed him to display personal courage, a characteristic that would help him hold the respect of the armed forces, it did not give him exposure to national-security policymaking. And it seems to have left him with a famously uncontrollable temper, which may reflect a low-grade form of PTSD. No matter how honorably that injury was earned, it is not in itself a good characteristic to have in someone whose finger would be on the proverbial button.

In the Senate, he worked with John Kerry at the thankless task of resolving the question of whether Americans were still being held in Vietnam as prisoners of war. That is greatly to his credit, and required substantial political courage, since it involved terminally annoying the powerful POW-MIA families lobby and much of the wingnut right. He must have known that this great public service would not serve him well in seeking the Republican Presidential nomination, or even in winning the general election. Virtually everyone for whom the POW question is a voting issue was on the other side of it.

But that experience is not really relevant to the job of Commander-in-Chief, and in particular the strategic-planning and “3 a.m. phone call” aspects of that job. And, as seems to have been the case with his peers in the Navy, his fellow Republican Senators seem to share a remarkably low opinion of his talents and fitness for the White House. Perhaps they are wrong to see his “maverick” act as mostly showboating and selfishness, but that is indeed what they see. Their judgment contains information about his likely performance as President, and is also an important fact in its own right about his capacity to get things done. (Since most of what McCain would like to do I would oppose, I don’t count that very heavily against him, but it does speak to the “qualifications” issue.)

On Senate Armed Services he has been both a hawk and an opponent of some of the ways defense contractors loot the Treasury. The latter is creditable, and if carried over to the Presidency might save the country tens of billions of dollars while also improving its security. The hawkishness is a recommendation to hawks, but not to the rest of us. Surely he knows more about defense, and has more contacts among defense decision-makers both public and private, than he would without that committee service. But other than the POW issue he has left no legislative footprints on defense issues.

McCain’s bold opposition to torture constitutes a qualification for those of us who oppose it, and it also shows a certain amount of political courage. But his passivity in the face of the “signing statement” with which President Bush eviscerated (or at least purported to eviscerate) McCain’s anti-torture bill that became law, and his recent vote against limiting the interrogation techniques used by intelligence agencies, reflect either a change of heart with respect to torture, a long-term belief that torture should be engaged in by civilians rather than servicemembers (to protect captured US forces from facing retaliation), or political calculation. The fact that McCain had not, in pushing his previous legislation, made any mention of the distinction between torture by people in uniform and torture by others makes opportunism the most likely explanation. In any case, that vote largely vitiates the right McCain would otherwise have had of claiming the gratitude (even if not the political support) of opponents of torture.

Moreover, McCain has done precisely nothing to protect the military against abuse by the Bush Administration. He did not protest when Gen. Shinseki was publicly humiliated by Secretary Rumsfeld for what turned out to be well-founded concern about the adequacy of the forces being sent to Iraq. He said nothing in defense of the JAG officers who spoke out against torture and the kangaroo court system established by the Congress at Mr. Bush’s urging (McCain supported the military commissions bill).

McCain’s criticisms of the occupation of Iraq have been almost entirely retrospective. He spoke out against none of the key blunders &#8212 going in too light, establishing the CPA, putting Bremer in charge of it, staffing it with hacks, destroying the Iraqi Army and civil service, failing to provide security (e.g., against looting), pushing for parliamentary elections rather than creating local self-rule, ignoring the opinions and interests of traditional Iraqi elites, allowing ethnic cleansing by Shi’a militias allied to the ruling parties, and using the reconstruction effort as a patronage-and-graft piggy-bank &#8212 while there was time to correct them.

McCain’s comments on strategy against Islamic terrorism are both banal and reckless, and at least rhetorically he suffers from Cheney Syndrome, which causes blindness to distinctions among our enemies: e.g., conflating the al-Qaeda problem with the Iranian problem.

So while it’s true that McCain has “a lifetime of experience,” it’s not at all clear that any significant portion of that experience is relevant do performing the Commander-in-Chief function. He’s not a deep or careful thinker, not a formulator of coherent ideas, not a gifted speaker or a gifted back-room operator, not an experienced manager, not someone capable of holding his tongue (e.g., “Bomb bomb bomb Iran”), and not someone whose colleagues naturally rally around him. Worse, he has a record of backtracking on his convictions whenever they get in the way of his ambitions.

So I conclude that, from the perspective of an opponent of Bush-like foreign and military policy, the claim that McCain would make a better Commander-in-Chief than Barack Obama has very little to back it up. It is, in the words of Mark Twain, “A vagrant opinion, living with no visible means of support.” If Hillary Clinton sincerely holds that opinion, there is reason to question her own fitness for the Presidency. If she’s just pretending, that’s another sort of problem.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: