McCain Does Manhattan, By the Issues
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Add the Manhattan Institute to Iowa and New Hampshire on the list of early proving grounds for presidential candidates — at least the Republican ones.
Senator McCain visited New York City yesterday to offer his views on Israel, government spending, Charles Darwin, and campaign finance and in so doing became the latest of the 2008 presidential hopefuls to address the city’s conservative think tank, which has also heard recently from Mayor Giuliani and from Governor Romney of Massachusetts.
In Mr. McCain’s appearance yesterday, the Arizona Republican who ran for president in 2000 offered glimpses of the political talent that puts him at or near the top of many early polls. He also showed why he is by no means a lock to win in 2008 and why other high-quality candidates think they have an opportunity to beat him.
Mr. McCain, who delivered his prepared remarks in an even, almost perfunctory manner, was at his best in the question and answer session that followed. Responding to a question about a report that he thinks “intelligent design” should be taught in schools, the senator mocked the idea that American young people were so delicate and impressionable that they needed to be sheltered from the concept, which says God had a hand in creation and which has been challenged by Darwinists as unscientific.
“Shhh, you shouldn’t tell them,” he said, mimicking those who would shield children from the fact that some people believe in intelligent design. The former prisoner of war said he also disagreed with Cold War-era efforts to prevent Marxist-Leninism from being taught in schools, saying it was better for Americans to understand their enemy. He noted that he didn’t say that intelligent design needed to be taught in “science class,” leaving unclear exactly what class he thought it should be taught in. He said he believed local school boards, not the federal government, should determine curricula.
“From a personal standpoint, I believe in evolution,” Mr. McCain said. At the same time, he said, “When I stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and I see the sun going down, I believe the hand of God was there.”
Mr. McCain was also animated in his answer to a question about whether, as an Israeli newspaper reported, he thinks Israel should withdraw to what were its borders before the 1967 Six Day War. He said he was caught on one foot at a conference by”a reporter from a very liberal newspaper.”
“’67 Borders?” the reporter asked, Mr.McCain recounted.”He said I quote ‘nodded.'”
In truth, Mr. McCain said, “I don’t think they should withdraw to the ’67 borders. I think they should withdraw to what they think is in their nation’s interest.”
Mr.McCain said he was “deeply disappointed” by European comments that Israel has overreacted to attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. He blamed Syria and Iran for the attacks, and he said if America were attacked with rockets, it would react strongly, as Israel had. “No nation in the world would react any differently,” he said, a theme that was echoed later in the day by a potential 2008 rival of Mr. McCain’s, Senator Clinton.
He said Americans are united behind President Bush in their reaction to the latest Middle East crisis,but he also wandered a bit from Mr. Bush’s line, saying, “Of course we want international intervention, we want the U.N. to intervene.”
He said the terrorist groups aiming at Israel are “also dedicated to the destruction of the United States of America.” And he advised “we should do everything we can to encourage the spread of democracy” in Iran.
On economic policy, Mr. McCain sounded like a scold. He said the Republican base is fed up with excess federal spending. “I am worried about them staying home in this upcoming election,” Mr. McCain said.
On Social Security, while voicing support for private accounts, Mr. McCain called for a return to the spirit of cooperation that obtained on the issue between President Reagan and a Democratic speaker of the House, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. He neglected to say that the compromise brought an increase in the payroll tax.
Mr. McCain warned that after the election this November, Congress may return to pass an “obscene, horrible, omnibus appropriations bill … loaded up with pork-barrel projects.”
The senator said he was concerned about a rising tide of trade protectionism. “I thought this hysteria over Dubai was almost incomprehensible,” he said, referring to Congressional action that scuttled a deal to sell a port operator to a Dubai-owned company.
On immigration, Mr. McCain voiced support for President Bush’s approach, saying it is “far from workable to round up 11 million people and send them back.”
“Four hundred ten people died in the desert last year. One was a two-year old child,” Mr. McCain said. “It’s a very tough way to die, from heat prostration.”
On campaign finance, Mr. McCain returned to scold mode, going on a tirade against independent political advertising groups known as 527s after the section of the tax code under which they exist. They include groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and a group that spent money against Mr. McCain in the 2000 New York Republican primary. “These 527s are very dangerous,” Mr. McCain said. “They can wreak havoc. … In my view they are a violation of everything that we believe in.”
Mr. McCain said his enthusiasm for campaign finance restrictions would not prevent him from naming conservative judges such as John Roberts and Samuel Alito, whom he called “two great Supreme Court justices.” The senator said the Supreme Court had already ruled the McCain-Feingold Act, also known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, legal in a case he referred to as “McConnell versus Whatever.”
When the moderator tried to announce the final question, Mr. McCain announced he would take two more. He seemed to be enjoying himself, improvising answers that sounded like what he really thinks, not what was calculated to impress one constituency or another. One could see why Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign bus was called the Straight Talk Express. It’s a trait that can be endearing in a politician because it is so unusual. But for a candidate or a president, it can be risky, too.