Why are so many economic conservatives still iffy about John McCain? Sure, he wants to cut taxes and expand free trade, but he's still pushing the regulatory leviathan that is cap-and-trade and still bashes unpopular industries like oil and pharmaceuticals. But it's more than that. McCain, whatever his 2008 campaign agenda, has yet to become a forceful and persuasive advocate for smaller government and freer markets.
Not surprising, really. His whole life has been spent in government, either in the military or on Capitol Hill. (Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was no CEO but did spend years as a spokesman for General Electric, touring plants and giving speeches.) And right now, with so many factors pushing the nation toward bigger and more intrusive government—the backlash against free trade, the housing downturn, large budget deficits, perceived climate change—economic conservatives see the need for a strong voice to advance the argument for economic freedom.
It was much the same during the 1930s, when the New Deal and big government were dominant despite a Great Depression seemingly without end. In 1937, there was a radio debate between Wendell Willkie—who was to become the 1940 Republican presidential nominee—and Roosevelt administration official Robert Jackson—later a Supreme Court justice—about the proper economic role of government. (The event and its fallout are wonderfully described in the outstanding book The Forgotten Man " by Amity Shlaes.)
By all accounts, Willkie won easily by pointing out, among other things, that FDR's efforts at nationalizing the utilities industry, his dramatic tax increases, and his administration's push for prosecutions of businessmen had frozen the private sector with fear and prevented the country from returning to prosperity. The Saturday Evening Post would later call Willkie "The Man Who Talked Back" against the New Deal and big government.
Once again there is talk of dramatic tax increases in the name of fairness, government intervention in key economic sectors, and the evils of business (hedge funds, healthcare, energy). Could Mitt Romney, a guy who might be right at the top of McCain's short list for vice president, be "The Man Who Talked Back" for a new era as veep? Many free-market folks I chat with sure hope so.