When National Review endorsed incumbent Senator John McCain over former Congressman J.D. Hayworth, it had a lot of conservatives confused over their motives. It had Mark Levin confused over who actually endorsed McCain; he accused Hot Air of issuing the endorsement along with NR (neither AP nor I endorsed anyone). At least one of National Review’s writers, the estimable Andrew McCarthy, is just as perplexed at the decision:
I haven’t been keeping score, but my sense has been that National Review stays out of Republican congressional primary races, at least most of the time. This is a good thing. It reflects an ethos focused on the strategic direction of the conservative movement rather than tactical politics. It underscores that issues are more critical to us than personalities.
As a practical matter, moreover, it avoids diminishing the magazine’s prestige. A candidate who wins despite NR’s endorsement of his opponent could become hostile — and less open to our ideas — especially because he knows NR’s endorsement of the other guy will be used by the Left as a cudgel against him. And then there’s NR’s readership: Not only would the magazine appear less influential if itsconservative readers reject its preferred candidate; readers will be doubly miffed if their preferred candidate loses a tight general-election race to a leftist who has exploited the NR endorsement.
For all these reasons and more, I was disappointed to see the editors abandon prudent restraint and dive into the 2010 primary fray. More disappointing, though, is that, of all the candidates on whose behalf this improvident decision might have been made, NR’s prestige has been put on the line for John McCain, the incumbent Arizona senator being challenged from the right by former congressman J. D. Hayworth.
McCarthy offers a lengthy treatise on the broad issues conservatives have with McCain: immigration, a predilection for big-government solutions, and especially on cap-and-trade, one of the worst ideas to come out of Washington in a long time. Well, actually, more like second-worst:
And then there is McCain’s jihad against the First Amendment. The senator was not content with his statutory ban on political speech. Though he told National Review in a 2007 interview that he would push for no furtherlegislation beyond McCain/Feingold, the senator was even then pleading for a judicial ratcheting up of his speech-stifling law. Ultimately, the Supreme Court rejected his effort to prevent a group called Wisconsin Right to Life from running issue ads that merely urged constituents to contact Senator Feingold’s office and tell him to give Bush judicial appointees an up-or-down vote. Nevertheless, the damage wrought by McCain’s years-long campaign against political speech is incalculable. He has been instrumental in creating the climate that enables such outrages as the Democrats’ ongoing effort to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which struck down restrictions against political expenditures by corporations.
The editors insist that McCain’s “accomplishment” in supporting the surge “more than makes up for” his “mistakes” on issues like free speech and interrogation policy. With respect, I disagree. Iraq is already sliding deep into the Islamist camp, while the surge — which, again, is a strategy for tamping down violence, not winning the war — is being used to justify a futile, prohibitively costly nation-building enterprise in Afghanistan. The United States, by contrast, is plagued by unprecedented assaults on political speech, daunting legal impediments to intelligence-gathering, and a coming reinvigoration of McCain’s immigration gambit. The surge is small compensation for the wages of McCain’s influence.
In the end, though, McCarthy relies on the better argument that NR should never have gotten involved in the primary at all. I’m less sanguine about Hayworth than McCarthy, so I don’t see either candidate as a particularly compelling figure that requires either national opposition or support. Arizona voters know both candidates well; McCain has been in Congress for almost 30 years, which could be another good reason to send him into retirement, and Hayworth has been in Congress and on the Arizona airwaves as a radio-show host. Neither of them needs assistance in raising their profiles.
The primary mission of National Review is to develop intellectual support for conservatism, and to recognize voices in the movement that will push it forward and succeed. That does include getting involved in electoral politics — how could it not? — but those interventions should be chosen wisely and where national impact makes a difference. Picking sides in primaries is notoriously difficult for national organizations, as the NRSC discovered in Florida, and usually doesn’t pay off well. NR should write about the issues in primaries, but issuing endorsements almost always means having to cut across lines of alliance that divides rather than unifies, and inevitably reduces influence, at least in the short term. McCarthy’s right: National Review missed its chance to keep quiet.