Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I'm no John McCain fan, and one of the basic reasons for this is that I do not consider McCain to be conservative. But this may frustrate some readers because "conservative" is a word that gets tossed around a lot by a lot of different people. Just what exactly does it mean? Obviously, everybody interprets the word differently, so I will attempt to better explain why I am turned off my McCain's candidacy instead of simply resorting to obscure labels and categories.
Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were limited-government conservatives. In other words, they were Republicans because they were inherently skeptical of the federal government's ability to plan the economy and solve all of society's problems. Instead, they believed individuals could better plan their own lives themselves, and that a large welfare state created more problems than it solved. They saw a large, powerful, expanding bureaucracy (whether it be at home in Washington or abroad in Moscow) as a threat to individual freedom and prosperity. They subscribed to the belief that "a government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have," and their mantra was individual liberty consistent with transcendent order. We could also refer to these types as "leave us alone" conservatives.
McCain, on the other hand, is what we may consider a "national greatness" conservative. In other words, he is Republican because he's a hawk with an astounding war record who made the most honorable of sacrifices for his country during Vietnam, which I have the deepest respect for. He loves this country more than anything else in the world, and this is no doubt a reflection of his impeccable moral character. But this unfortunately leads to his biggest flaw: his long-held, deep-rooted belief that greatness can only be achieved through some great "crusade" that we all have to fight for, some overarching cause that we're all in together, and fulfilling this overarching duty is what makes people decent and good Americans. For example, in a speech the other day he said he's discovered that "nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone," and that "there is no honor or happiness in just being strong enough to be left alone." He's always quick to remind us that he served the country "not for profit, but for patriotism."
So unlike Goldwater or Reagan, the maximum goal for McCain isn't individual liberty, but is instead duty, sacrifice, and moral righteousness instigated by the same bureacracy Goldwater and Reagan so vociferously opposed. This is what drives McCain, and whether it's regulating baseball, curtailing campaign finance, fighting climate change, or lambasting hedge funds, it's all about the "duty" politicians and Americans have to "step in," join the "cause," and "do the 'right' thing," which ultimately translates into a political philosophy that is not only inconsistent with traditional conservatism, but often stands directly antithetical to it.
For more on this, check out Prof. Bainbridge's recent post on the topic, which breaks things down a little more elaborately with more direct quotes and analysis.