We believe government should do only those things we cannot do individually, to tax us no more than necessary, and spend no more than necessary, and then get out of the way of the most industrious, ingenious and optimistic people in the history of the world so that they can build an even greater country than the one they inherited.
It was a fine sentiment, similar to what he was saying after winning South Carolina … and it has absolutely nothing to do with McCain's voluminous track record as a congressman, senator and public figure.
The road begins to fork at the definition of what "we cannot do invidually." For instance, individually we—and by "we" I mean "John McCain," his Senate office, and even his own campaign website—can enjoy making or facilitating bets on, say, college basketball games. But it's only through the government can we—and by "we" I mean "John McCain"—make betting on college athletics illegal.
The same goes for the most sacred style of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment (or should I say, "quote First Amendment"): political speech. Sure, individuals such as John McCain can pay for advertisements attacking his political opponents within 90 days of an election. But thanks to John McCain, if two individuals join forces to pay for an ad attacking an elected official 90 days before an election, they are either forced to register as a political committee (and therefore comply with Byzantine federal laws regarding donation limits and disclosure), or do battle in the courts long after the election in question fades away.
Most importantly, McCain's own concept of individuality does not include sufficient respect for the private pursuit of happiness. "Americans did not fight and win World War II as discrete individuals," he warned in the pages of The Washington Monthly after the Sept. 11 massacre. "Their brave and determined energies were mobilized and empowered by a national government headed by democratically elected leaders. That is how a free society remains free and achieves greatness." In his 2002 political memoir Worth the Fighting For, McCain wrote: "Our freedom and our industry must aspire to more than acquisition and luxury."
Or there's this stirring passage from a 2006 speech:
[T]hose who claim their liberty but not their duty to the civilization that ensures it, live a half-life, having indulged their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. The richest man or woman, the most successful and celebrated Americans, possess nothing of importance if their lives have no greater object than themselves. They may be masters of their own fate, but what a poor destiny it is that claims no higher cause than wealth or fame.
Should we claim our rights and leave to others the duty to the nation that protects them, whatever we gain for ourselves will be of little lasting value. It will build no monuments to virtue, claim no honored place in the memory of posterity, offer no worthy summons to other nations. Success, wealth, celebrity gained and kept for private interest is a small thing. It makes us comfortable, eases the material hardships our children will bear, purchases a fleeting regard for our lives, yet not the self-respect that in the end matters most. But sacrifice for a cause greater than your self-interest, and you invest your lives with the eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.
Can you trust a man who speaks those words to separate "those things we cannot do individually" from private behavior that he perceives as contributing to "the pervasive public cynicism that is debilitating our democracy"? Is the best cherry to put on top of eight years of George W. Bush a man who was advocating multi-front pre-emptive wars back in 1999, and who doesn't even understand why anyone would question another century of U.S. presence in Iraq? These are some of the questions to chew on next week, and the nine months afterward.
For more in this vein—including an exploration of the legitimately limited-government element of his record—I can wholeheartedly recommend the book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.