AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about his relationship with the president- with George Bush?
MATT WELCH: It's an interesting and tortured one, you know? McCain was- not only was he running against Bush, but he was running against Bush very much as an insurgent in 2000. The Republican establishment had coalesced around Bush, and McCain and his backers- largely who are neoconservatives and surrounded the Weekly Standard Magazine, in particular, Bill Kristol and David Brooks. They were speaking a language of Teddy Roosevelt and third parties, this is an insurgency and maybe the Republican party will get blown up in the process. It was a very kind of high wire and thrilling act, and one reason why a lot of people glommed onto it. They saw that he was standing up and having daily "sister soldier" moments with the right. He was calling Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agents of intolerance and these kind of things. So he ran this sort of very insurgent campaign, playing star wars music, you know? And George Bush was Darth Vader and McCain was Luke Skywalker. And then Bush croaked him in South Carolina in a pretty vicious campaign. I don't know if it was any more vicious than your standard vicious campaign- but then McCain went and sulked basically for a year and a half.
There was a lot of talk, we forget about it now, but there was a lot of talk in 2001 especially of- is McCain going to defect and go to the Democratic Party? He got very interested in campaign finance, which is largely a democratic initiative. He became much more interested in global warming and regulatory issues, which are more traditionally democratic. And you know there were plenty of articles about both him and the Weekly Standard people and neoconservatives in general in late 2001, before September 11th, saying "Hey look, you know, they're basically going to be democrats this time next year." Well, September 11th changed all that.
The basic McCain strategy- you know in 1999 McCain advocated this policy of rogue-state rollback which is basically preemptive war three and a half years before Bush ever thought of it.
AMY GOODMAN: He threatened North Korea with extinction.
MATT WELCH: He threatened North Korea with extinction, and he elucidated this doctrine by which- wherever there is an authoritarian dictator, we support the insurgents. And, if we support the insurgent and the dictator cracks down, then we have to defend the insurgents with US force. And any time we make a threat and someone calls our bluff, we also have to use US force. It is incredibly interventionist militaristic approach towards foreign policy that he has had all along. That's the reason why neoconservatives have flocked to his cause and championed it over the years.
So, after September 11th, Bush started to embrace those ideas. That kind of policy structure grafted onto Bush and so it was natural that McCain and Bush would become closer over that time. And then- starting around 2004 and 2005, when McCain started eyeing the presidency in 2008, he began this long, slow suck-up to the right, particularly social conservatives, and also to Bush because he wanted to be the sort of front runner of the Republican establishment.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened around this period when, well, John McCain started singing.
AMY GOODMAN: We'll go to the song.
MATT WELCH: -Are you playing the song now?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: You know that old Beach Boys song "Bomb Iran?" [laughter] "Bomb, bomb, bomb- anyway. [laughter]
AMY GOODMAN: What about that, Matt Welch?
MATT WELCH: That was I believe last February or March or something like that, mid January. Look, this is his idea of humor. He does have a kind of blunt and ribald occasionally awful sense of humor. But it speaks also to his policy ideas. Whenever he talks about Vladimir Putin, who is no friend of mine certainly, but when he talks about him on the campaign trail, he says, "I look into his eyes and I see three letters-K.G.B." He is constantly rattling sabers in the general direction of everybody. Of China, Russia, certainly of North Korea. At any given time, he considers this or that dictator or authoritarian or kind of mean guy to be the transcendent issue that we must focus on this very moment. It is the only sort of lever or- the only sort of grade that he knows to approach the world's problems, which is "identify evil everywhere and get in evil's face".