Is John McCain a Burkean Conservative?

Jonathan Rauch argues that John McCain is a "Burkean conservative," which Rauch defines as "respecting long-standing customs and institutions" and opposing "radical change." I'm a big fan of Rauch's work, but in this case I find his argument unconvincing.

Most of Rauch's evidence consists of political compromises that McCain has accepted as a senator and presidential candidate. However, as a "maverick" senator viewed with suspicion by both his own party and the Democrats, McCain had little choice but to compromise if he wanted to see any of his ideas enacted into law. Similarly, McCain had to accept some compromises and trim his sails in order to win the nomination of the Republican Party, most of whose activists were hardly enthusiastic about his candidacy.

On some issues, however, McCain has indeed endorsed "radical change" that runs counter to tradition. For example, he has repeatedly made clear that he wants far more sweeping regulation of political speech, going well beyond the compromises embodied in his McCain-Feingold law. Rauch describes the Iraq War as inconsistent with Burkean conservatism (because it was an effort at rapid transformation of a tyrannical society). Yet McCain has consistently supported the war just as enthusiastically as President Bush (albeit advocating what I think is a more effective and realistic strategy than that pursued by Bush and the Pentagon during the first several years of the conflict). If McCain becomes president, he will face fewer external constraints and will therefore be able to pursue his more radical preferences more aggressively.

Nonetheless, there is a good reason for Burkean conservatives and others opposed to rapid change to prefer a McCain victory. If McCain wins, divided government will be preserved, and divided government makes it difficult for either the President or Congress to enact radical new policy initiatives. It also plays a valuable role in constraining the growth of government. If one of the Democrats wins, he or she will have a cooperative Democratic majority in Congress (probably a bigger one than currently exists) and there will likely be several radical new policy initiatives and a major expansion of the size and scope of government. Thanks to divided government, a McCain victory might well lead to Burkean conservative results even if that isn't McCain's personal preference.

At the same time, I should note that I am not a Burkean conservative myself, and my reasons for preferring a McCain victory have more to do with the usefulness of divided government in constraining the growth of government than with any general opposition to rapid change. If time permits, I will do a follow-up post on the shortcomings of Burkean conservatism, which I think overstates the virtues of tradition and underestimates the possibility that rapid change is sometimes a good thing.