PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome back to the next section of our interview with Matt Welch, editor of Reason magazine—you can find it at reason.com. And we’re discussing John McCain and the neocons. Welcome back, Matt. Matt, so what we were talking about in the last segment is this idea that you’ve got a McCain with a kind of mythology of the Maverick who bucks corporate power and bucks corruption in Washington and so on and so on. But perhaps a more real—and which may be some truth to it. But the kind of real McCain that gets almost talked about not at all in mainstream media is John McCain the neocon, surrounded by the same people that Dick Cheney brought around him in the White House, more or less, in terms of positioning [and] outlook—maybe not the same individuals. So can you tell a little bit about the history of that?
MATT WELCH, REASON.COM: Yeah. I mean, beginning around 1997, 1998, McCain knew he was running for president. He was writing a memoir of his Vietnam experience and imposing this new meaning of it as a sort of redemption tale, in which the stubborn individualist learns that there’s only so far you can go as an egotist, and that you have to subsume your character under a cause greater. It’s actually very twelve-steppy—it’s kind of creepy. So all this was happening at once. He needed a new ideology to hang his hat on in order to run for president. At this time, the editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard and the managing editor (William Kristol, one of the sons of neoconservatism, and David Brooks) wrote an essay in The Wall Street Journal about national-greatness conservatism. This was an explicit rejection of limited-government Republicanism in the tradition of Barry Goldwater—John McCain took his Senate seat—and of Ronald Reagan to some degree. It said that we need great national projects, we need to have more faith in our government, and above all we need to have a super-aggressive and assertive foreign policy and shout to the rooftops that we are the Unipower and that we are the special nation on this planet. From that moment, McCain stopped being a sort of Vietnam-syndrome, cautious semi-realist, and he became the most full-throated neoconservative senator in Washington by far. He was the chief guy advocating for the invasion—not just the bombing, but the invasion of Kosovo, for example. Back when Republicans were dead set against it, he was arguing for Bill Clinton and saying Bill Clinton wasn’t going far enough, and that there was going to be a catastrophe if we didn’t send ground troops there. He advocated rogue-state rollback/preemptive war three years before George W. Bush thought it was cool. He’s been utterly consistent on this point, surrounding himself with the same people, literally Weekly Standard staffers coming over to work for him. To this day, he’s got plenty of Weekly Standard people on his staff, the exact same people—Project for the New American Century and all this kind of stuff. And this is the issue that he cares about the most. He flip-flops constantly on economic issues and social issues that he doesn’t really care about.
JAY: Tell us about the relationship with Joe Lieberman. We did a story just before the Iowa caucus in the Republican primary, when Lieberman endorsed McCain and Romney still looked like a front-runner. The title of our story was “The neocons have picked their horse.” What is this relationship with Lieberman, and what does it represent?
WELCH: I might have a different interpretation than others, but people forget in 2001, in May, June 2001, after McCain got his hat handed to him by George W. Bush and felt very sulky about it, and after these national-greatness conservatives and neocons were considered to be a almost extinct species, back then, in the summer, there was a lot of people talking about, “Hey, McCain is going to be either a Democrat or an independent, and The Weekly Standard guys are going off the Republican reservation altogether, and they’re going to start a new sort of Bull Moose Party patterned after their hero, Teddy Roosevelt.” Well, the head Bull Moose guy was someone named Marshall Wittman in modern politics, a former Weekly Standard staffer. He went and tried to convince John McCain, for whom he wrote speeches, to run as an independent. And he eventually started working for a guy named Joe Lieberman to this day—he wrote Joe Lieberman’s speech last night. But what happened was September 11th came down, and Bush didn’t have a useful ideology or a set of ideas to attack this front, so he looked around at who’s been talking about this stuff forever: it’s the neocons. And so all these ideas, which had been marginalized for so long, suddenly became mainstream governing thought. And once that happened, the whole impetus for McCain becoming an independent went out the window, and the last person to become an independent was Joe Lieberman. And so of course he embraced it.
JAY: Lieberman also has close connections with AIPAC and close connections with the Likud party in Israel, and often Lieberman is kind of seen as—some people, if they want to get particularly derogatory about Lieberman, see him as a bit of an ambassador for Likud in American politics. That may be an overstatement. In my own mind it is, but certainly a lot of people hold that opinion. Lieberman seems to represent, in that endorsement of McCain, alliance with McCain, a converging of various kinds of neocon forces. Do you agree with that?
WELCH: You know, I never really know what’s motivating people. I kind of take them at their word. You know, for instance, if you talk about McCain in Georgia, his chief foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, was doing lobbying for, you know, the country of Georgia, and a lot of people wanted to make a big scandal about that. And I suppose there is a sort of a possible corruption angle, but it is actually a marriage of interest. Scheunemann and McCain genuinely believe that Russia is a malevolent force trying to sort of retake its empire, and so it sort of makes sense. I would assume, not knowing, that the same is the case with Lieberman. He’s always been hawkish; he’s always been super pro-Israel. That’s who he is. And he has decided, as a lot of people have, although their numbers are shrinking, that the way that America responds to September 11 is just to be on offense constantly, whatever that means, especially in the Middle East. I think he believes that. I think it’s wrong, but someone who believes that is going to flock to John McCain over any other politician.
JAY: And the other part of this myth of the maverick and the myth of McCain is both McCain and Lieberman for many months have been getting away with what I believe is a lie, from as far as I know, number one, stating over and over again that Iran has a nuclear weapon—they state as a fact. And they state as a fact [that] once Iran has a weapon, they’re going to give these weapons to terrorists. You have John Bolton running around—we actually interviewed him yesterday, and he more or less came out and endorsed an Israeli attack on Iran. But the media has been kind of allowing McCain to sound very moderate. And even Lieberman, when he spoke the other night at the convention, I don’t think he even mentioned the word “Iran” once. What do you make of this?
WELCH: Well, McCain, in order to win the presidency, has to appeal to independents, Democrats, and antiwar people. So for that crowd he is saying, “No, no, no, no. I’m not a neoconservative. I’m an Eisenhower Republican. I’m a moderate. I’m more moderate than George W. Bush. In fact, you know, I talk to Brent Scowcroft”—who’s just sort of a realist icon—”every day,” all this kind of stuff. It’s patently untrue when you look at his record. But what it is, it’s a way for him to draw from his “Bank of the Benefit of the Doubt” with the media, and unfortunately there’s still a lot of money in that vault. So it is effective. And you’ll see next-day coverage on these things be very, you know, credulous in saying that, “Oh, no, he’s moderate in foreign policy, he’s nuanced,” and all these kind of things, even when in fact he’s the most interventionist presidential candidate, maybe, since Teddy Roosevelt.
JAY: That being said, as we said earlier, that means he probably scares the bejesus, or at least antagonizes more, the Ron Paul and independent type of voters represented by Paul. And in the next segment of our interview, we’re going to talk about Ron Paul and what he believes in. Please join us with Matt Welch in the next section of our discussion.
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