Yesterday I had the opportunity to watch a conversation with John McCain during his visit to Google. Eric Schmidt started by asking McCain a series of questions, before things took a town-hall feel with lots of questions from the audience. I thought I'd share my thoughts about what he said and my impressions.
The top level impression one gets from McCain is that he's running on the war platform. He wants to defend the US militarily, economically, and in every way possible (e.g., in the war of perception and ideas). He's going to use his military background (which is, of course, very impressive) to bolster his position as the best to be commander-in-chief. He said that for the US to lead the world, it has to regain some of the luster that it has lost over the last several years---you can't torture prisoners, you can't kidnap people and send them to other countries for interrogation (called "rendition", I think) , you can't have Guantanamo, ...
A second impression I get is McCain wants to run on a platform of optimism---the idea that we can win out over any hurdles. He said he was inspired by Reagan, the master of optimism.
This aspect of McCain appeals to the gut; it sounds good and it helps inspire. But by themselves, it's not clear what he'd actually do about it. The rest of the conversation focused on more specifics.
Eric asked McCain to talk about the unpopular war in Iraq. McCain has been critical of the way the war has been prosecuted by the administration to this point, so why does he think that the surge will work? McCain said that it wasn't just about having more troops, but that the strategy on the ground had changed---something about holding secure environments rather than withdrawing once an area was made secure (and thereby letting the insurgency get back). He didn't say much more about this, but instead went on to argue that if we withdraw now that things will be much worse than they are---worse for the US and worse for Iraq's neighbors. He argued that Iraq's neighbors need to help stabilize Iraq.
I remained unconvinced that the surge itself will succeed. But his point about working with Iraq's neighbors to stabilize Iraq is an important one. However, he didn't go into much detail on how he'd get the support of these neighbors.
Eric then asked him about Iran: does any behavior by Iran warrant war? McCain had a simple answer: Iran cannot have nuclear weapons. He said the fear is not that Iran would use nuclear weapons, but rather that it would arm a terrorist organization with nuclear weapons. That's a good point and its worth thinking about. He went to pains to point out that most of the people in Iran are actually sophisticated, cultured, educated, etc.
Eric then asked McCain to outline his major domestic priorities. McCain said he had two: climate change and spending.
Climate change as a priority was interesting. I don't know how much of this was simply pandering to the Google audience, and how much he truly believes. It'll be interesting to see what he says about climate change over the next year and half to see if this is truly a priority. McCain was quite critical of the Bush administration on its handling of climate change. He said we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He referred to a a recent report by some retired military personnel that climate change is a significant security threat. I don't know what report he's referring to, but given his defense focus, maybe this report was the tipping point for him.
On spending, McCain railed against pork barrel spending ($200+ million for a bridge in Alaska to an island of 50 people...). He said that such pork-laden bills are a direct cause of corruption. He promised to veto the first pork-laden bill that crosses his desk. I think one can believe him on this.
An interesting point on his domestic priorities. Maybe he wanted to highlight only these two items and not provide a laundry list. But it was striking that things like education and health care did not make it to this list.
Eric then threw the floor open to the audience for questions. Here's a sample of the questions.
Q: Why should we be Republicans?
McCain gave a short crisp definition of what it means to be Republican. He said that Republicans are about less government, less taxes, strong defense, a strong foreign policy, less regulation, and a government closest to the people (not clear what the last point means). Republicans also want to spread freedom and democracy all over the world. (I'm not sure all conservatives will agree with this point.)
Q: Why does the genocide in Darfur continue and why haven't we done anything about it?
McCain has apparently written about the genocide in Rwanda, and thus should be quite sensitive to the catastrophe in Darfur. He acknowledged that we haven't done enough. He said there were a lot of different difficulties with doing something. His approach would be to call on capable African states to go in and stop the genocide with logistical help from the US. He would only consider sending in US troops if he was convinced that it would be beneficial. He bemoaned the fact that we don't see Darfur daily on the evening news.
Given that he has written about genocide and he has some ideas to help the situation, I'm surprised he hasn't done more about it in his position as an influential US Senator.
Q: You took a courageous stand on religious extremism in the 2000 elections. Have you changed your stand on this now?
This question refers to McCain speaking at Jerry Falwell's university (?). McCain said he believes in reconciliation---Falwell apparently came to him and McCain was more than willing to engage in a dialog.
I don't know what's really going on here: is it really about reconciliation or simply politics. But reconciliation and talking with people with whom you have fundamental disagreements is a very good idea, specially in foreign policy.
Q: What is your position on the discrimination that atheists face?
McCain himself is a man of faith, and so disagrees with the atheist's beliefs. But he was very clear about saying that he would support no public policy that discriminates against them.
Q: The "don't ask don't tell" policy towards gays in the military is discriminatory and leads to qualified individuals being asked to leave the military (e.g., Arabic language experts). A Zogby poll suggests that 70% of the military is quite comfortable with having gays in the military.
McCain said that he listens to military leaders who tell him that the policy is working and that openly gay members of the military would significantly damage morale. Until his military leaders tell him otherwise, he's comfortable with the status quo.
There's much more, and you can watch it all in the video link at the top of this post. The bottom line is that McCain is very much about the war and about appealing to ones gut. He comes across as a straight talker. But he didn't go into a lot of detail on exactly what he'd do on many of the issues---he's no policy wonk---and his domestic agenda seems limited.
On a lighter note, I have to share one of his jokes. He said that after the South Carolina primary in 2000 (where he lost after being the target of various unseemly tactics) he slept like a baby: ... sleep 2 hours, wake up and cry, sleep 2 hours, wake up and cry, ...!