John McCain & George Soros: New York Encounter


I’m headed back to DC from a very interesting evening in New York where I got to hang out for a while in the plush and exotic “The Core Club” — an ultra-chic watering hole for people who have seriously large monetary endowments. (The Core Club’s official site is here.)
When one thinks about it for a moment, it is at such clubs that money and political ambitions often meet in states like New York, California, Florida, Boston, Massachusetts and to some degree Texas where big money places bets on some candidates and not others. The internet has undermined some of the cartelization of political fundraising, but despite Joe Trippi’s great success in the Dean campaign, there is a long way to go before such power circles as I saw in operation last night are undermined fully by a diversified small money giving base.
I mention all of this not because I was there for a fundraiser but because I stumbled into Senator John McCain and his 2000 McCain for President Campaign Chairman Rick Davis there for a fundraiser just before another event I was helping to organize.
I normally prefer grungy coffee shops or Congressional meeting rooms, but the club facilitiies and food were stunningly good. The reason I was there was that The Core Club’s president, Jennie Saunders, as well as Stephen Heintz, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and I co-hosted a book reception for George Soros and his just released The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror. About 150 people attended, and the quality of conversation and debate about Soros’s ideas and political views was excellent.

The McCain encounter caught me off guard. As long-term readers know, I admire McCain for challenging Cheney and his minions on torture. I have disagreed with John McCain on the Iraq War and on John Bolton, but I support what he has tried to do regarding political ethics. He, Russ Feingold, Martin Meehan, Henry Waxman, and Chris Shays were among very few members of Congress willing to take hits from the White House because of their efforts to try and keep “ethics and politics” in front of the public.

John McCain gave a good stump talk.
He didn’t get into his work against America’s de facto torture practices and only briefly echoed his lack of regard for Donald Rumsfeld’s management of the nation’s national security portfolio (but still slammed Rumsfeld in a momentary reference). He opened his comments by crediting Bush for the killing of Zarqawi but emphasized that there was “still a long hard slog ahead for us in Iraq.”
McCain said that the war was the number one issue for most Americans and unless demonstrable progress in Iraq was tangible to Americans by the time of elections, then it was likely Republicans were going to take some serious hits.
McCain decried the partisanship that had gripped Congress and Washington and said that people would rather see Ann Coulter debate Michael Moore than McCain debate Joe Lieberman. Someone among the group of mostly Democrats and Independents in the room suggested that they’d rather see McCain debate Ann Coulter, but that dropped from discussion fast.
McCain favors increasing the size of the military in manpower terms, which will be tough, and argued that a draft would not be acceptable to the American public.
When I asked him about campaign finance and political ethics reforms, McCain harshly criticized his colleagues for their willingness to accept high-price charter flights from American corporations and rich donors while only paying first class fares rather than charter flight fares and suggested that many Senators and Congressman see themselves as a notch above America’s citizens — and thus deserving of greater perks and privileges.
On Iran, McCain said that if he was President, he would go to Putin in Russia and Hu in China and make sure that they understood in every sense that if they continued to oppose American efforts to sanction iran’s nuclear weapons efforts that their respective ties with the United States would come under tangible, real stress. I personally wasn’t convinced by McCain’s views on Iran, but I do believe that he realizes that taking the wrong step here or there in this brewing crisis could dramatically impact the power order in the world. He seemed to imply that America could not succeed in its objectives with Iran without getting Russia and China in line with the U.S.
McCain also talked a lot about immigration and suggested that the Republican Party was in serious danger of alienating the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States because of what many perceived as a disregard for fair and balanced approaches to both securing America’s borders and dealing with the eleven million illegal immigrants already here. He gave Bush a lot of credit for his position on immigration — and emphasized the notion of “earned citizenship” over “amnesty”.
McCain was compelling in the reception. He worked the room well, learned people’s names, answered their questions fairly directly — though he sidestepped parts of my question, which was what was left in his future agenda on torture, Don Rumsfeld, and political ethics reform. He answered the last part in great length but failed to get into his battles with the White House on torture and military management issues.
On a last question about stem cell research, McCain bluntly said he’s all for it — full stop. He said that whenever someone with another view challenges him on it, he says for them to “give Nancy Reagan a call. She knows what she’s talking about — and she’s working the issue hard. When Nancy Reagan calls, you’re going to take that call.” Anyway, he’s not with the Christian fundamentalists on stem cell.
I’m reporting this not to advocate on McCain’s behalf but rather to give some sense of what he’s talking about with groups of people like the one in this club yesterday in New York. His rhetoric is not strident — but he doesn’t shirk from his views on the war, though he is highly critical of how the Bush team prosecuted matters in Iraq.
I hung out with the host of the event for a bit and talked with many of his guests — as the McCain event finished about fifteen minutes before George Soros walked into the very same room. Many of those assembled for the fundraiser were Democrats or independents; some were Bill Buckley/National Review style Republicans. I met no libertarians and didn’t meet anyone whom I thought would reflect hard core Red State conservatism. But they liked McCain.
As an experiment, I invited a few of the McCain crowd to attend the Soros event at which Soros spoke and entertained questions about his new book which criticizes what he terms “a false metaphor of a war on terror”.
Soros’s book is interesting, and I may write more about it another day. Some have already criticized me by email and in public comments for admitting to hosting the Soros reception, but I was proud to have done so. I’m in the ideas business — and Soros has been highly significant in changing the political dynamics of much of the former Soviet Union. Many people and pundits are passive, only reacting to what others do. Soros is someone who risks and does. I don’t agree with some of the things he has done, but I respect and want to learn more about what strategic thinking lies behind his personal, political and philanthropic work.
Soros opened his comments by stating that he greatly appreciated and admired John McCain’s steadfast commitment to the Geneva Conventions.
But then George Soros discussed a bit of his background and tutelage under the famed Karl Popper — and his thinking about where Popper’s views on “open society” were limited and no longer useful. Soros suggested that simply undermining totalitarianism did not automatically lead to open societies and that such implosion of power and control could lead to ongoing collapses within the respective country.
His biggest home run was his statement that the Bush administration, after 9/11, failed to try and restore faith and trust in the nation’s abilities to manage the threat from bin Laden and had instead exploited widespread fear to trigger a war it wanted to have with Iraq. Soros, when asked what he would have done if President of the U.S. after attacks like those of 9/11, said that he would have “plagiarized Roosevelt” and told Americans that “it was still true that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself.”
Soros sees American prestige in the world as badly damaged — and somewhat restorable with a new effort at alliance restoration and a new discourse on what serious challenges nations need to collectively concern themselves with — but he thinks it will be hard for America to get back to a position of its previous prestige and moral status in the world.
Perhaps I am mistaken, but I listened to Soros carefully and have read his book. I also listened to John McCain very carefully — and they do fundamentally, seriously disagree over the Iraq War and how America should manage its national security portfolio. Yet there is still a strikingly similar concern in both their presentations about America’s standing in the world and ability to achieve its great objectives and purposes. Each holds a view about America’s social contract internally and externally that seems quite similar.
When I told Soros that I thought that he and McCain probably agreed on about 80% of things when it came to national policy matters, George Soros said that it probably wasn’t quite that high but that he admired McCain. I didn’t ask McCain his views of Soros, but I think that McCain is probably above simplistic caricatures — or should be.
John McCain did speak at Jerry Falwell’s university, something that has vexed many McCain supporters, and George Soros did spend more than any other American, albeit unsuccessfully, to try and remove President Bush from the White House.
When the subject of John McCain comes up, many on the left go crazy and call him a Cheney-ite conservative, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” an unprincipled political huckster who blows with the political winds. John McCain, as I have known him, is a conservative, but he doesn’t fit the kind of billing many on the left have been giving him.
I think McCain is making a mistake in not repudiating fundamentalist zealots in his party — and can’t support an election bid that is in part built on threatening a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, or over gay rights, or any implied promise to further mix church and state. But to say that McCain is right of the right is not accurate.
One close advisor to McCain recently told me in a reflective moment of despair about the decision to speak at Falwell’s university that sometimes it is not the person Americans are electing who matters — but rather the team of people and their views who will fill out his or her administration.
Soros too comes off to me as someone of moderate Republican sensibilities who believes that for a healthy political marketplace of personalities and ideas to be restored in America, the Democratic Party — which he believes is in distressing disarray — needs to be brought back to power, both in at least the House of Representatives in 2006 and the presidency in 2008.
I won’t share anything that Soros or McCain said that would be considered personal or off-the-record, but I do think that the quality of their commentary and their efforts to try and direct the national debate require serious review of their thinking and ideas.
The ad hominem assaults on their character and demonization make the critics lodging them on each side look small.
McCain is running for President. Soros is not but will no doubt make a significant difference in that 2008 battle.
We should listen to and study what they are saying. Soros takes risks with his books and puts ideas on the table and seems to welcome the debate — positive and negative — that often ensues.
McCain too seems to welcome (most of the time) applause and criticism.
Whether one agrees with either or neither, a debate about serious ideas and proposals for the nation are what our next election should be about — and Soros and McCain are taking this task on seriously.
— Steve Clemons


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