Thursday, April 13, 2006

Thinking About McCain

Its not so much that Republicans, Democrats, and the pundits have got Senator John McCain of Arizona all wrong as they are wrong to insist on pigeonholing him as all one thing or the other. "Why not just let McCain be McCain?" Mr. Dickerson asks. It is a lovely sentiment but it misses the point. McCain does not let others define him. McCain just is – and this is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.

Mr. Weisberg probably comes as close as I have ever heard any commentator get to nailing McCain when he describes him as "a politician in genuine flux." The problem is that Weisberg – like everyone else – sees the transition as having ended sometime back in 2000, permanently moving McCain from a hardcore conservative to a more moderate/liberal philosophy. That is dead wrong. The transition is ongoing; McCain keeps growing as a leader, a politician, a candidate, and a human being on a daily basis.

In that sense, McCain is no more a maverick than he is a lockstep neocon. He is a largely traditional conservative who is open to new, progressive ideas and will adopt them when they make sense to him. But McCain only sees these new ideas as augmenting his core philosophy, not replacing it. He can blend a variety of conflicting views together and find the amalgamation that results perfectly reasonable, logical, and consistent.

Thus, he can support the preeminence of a woman's choice over her own body while still finding abortion a nasty procedure to be discouraged. That is a compromise that neither the Pro-Choice or Pro-Life camp can tolerate. Yet polls show it is exactly the way that the majority of Americans feel about this controversial subject. A President McCain should not be expected to pack the federal judiciary with judges dedicated to overturning Roe v. Wade but he will have not the slightest compunction appointing judges who are unafraid to place limits on abortion.

McCain's "electability" has never been his problem. As Dickerson notes, his difficulty is his "nominatability." In our increasingly partisan political climate, candidates who know their own minds and speak them without restraint earn naught but the wrath of their Parties' cores. Hence, McCain's current making nice with religious and social conservatives.

Yet even as he does so, in places like Iowa, where he is at the moment, McCain is also engaged in fund raising and other practical support for local Republican candidates. Even as he acknowledges that he needs the GOP's support, he subtly reminds them that they could use a popular national candidate themselves at the moment without overt ties to the Bush Administration or neoconservatism.

Weisberg does well to reassure moderates that McCain has not caved in to the far right but simply chooses to use them to the extent he needs them. However, it is important to remember that his acts are ones of personal choice not necessarily driven solely by political need. While there is no doubt in my mind that McCain detests President Bush personally, it is dangerous indeed to assume he is equally abhorrent of (all) Bush policies.

In many ways, I see McCain as less the second coming of either Barry Goldwater or Theodore Roosevelt and more the first real coming of George W. Bush. More precisely, McCain authentically embodies what Bush's handlers were trying to sell him as back in 2000 – a "compassionate conservative" who could hold true to ideological principle while embracing some progressive reforms and the ability to work with Democrats.

That is why I think the GOP was so rough on McCain during the early primaries. They had already decided upon their message and its front man when along comes the genuine article right within their own Party. McCain had to go and he had to do so both fast and decisively.

Dickerson worries that Democrats and moderates will not like McCain when he is not angry. Interestingly, those of us who would actually like to see him as President rather than merely the outsider speaking Truth to Power wish he could be less angry or at least more timely in his tantrums. That is another way in which McCain and Bush are alike – they tend to take things personally and have high bristle quotients when they are crossed.

Take McCain's recent brush with Democratic freshman Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. Obama had expressed interest in joining McCain on a bipartisan approach to tougher ethics and lobbying laws. In February, Obama sent McCain a letter explaining that the Democratic Party had formulated a proposed approach of its own and that he would stand with his Party. That earned a blistering response from McCain that Obama was engaging in "self-interested partisan posturing" and "disingenuousness" in desiring to see any real change.

Obama issued a cool but polite and dignified reply that he was sorry McCain was so upset, although a little mystified as to why, and restating his admiration for him. The point here is not whether Obama was partisan and disingenuous but how each man handled an unfortunate but all-too-common political situation. McCain, in my opinion, came off looking far more like the freshman.

After the insularity of the Bush Administration, McCain would be a breath of fresh air but always one with the potential to suddenly grow into a whirlwind. A President McCain should be expected to have at least a few angry brush-ups with Congressional leaders and probably also with some members of his own Cabinet.

McCain is often a popular guest on Comedy Central's Daily Show. He recently appeared, via video feed, to talk about his decision to appear at Falwell University. Host Jon Stewart was almost manic in his desire to find an explanation that did not require him to scream "Traitor! Hypocrite!" at a person whom he obviously admires. For his part, McCain was almost tongue-tied in his desire to genially reassure Stewart and his largely liberal audience, "I'm still a good guy."

So much time was spent in posturing that a very valid point made by McCain seemed to go unnoticed. He noted that he disagreed with the policy by many Ivy League schools not to allow military recruiters on their campuses – a policy the Supreme Court recently struck down as Unconstitutional – yet he often spoke there. Why was that not hypocrisy on his part but speaking at Fallwell U was? Stewart glossed over this point and I could guess why – for him and many of his viewers, the Ivy League policy was a just and moral one made by respected academics and administrators while Falwell is just a nutjob.

I agree with the part about Fallwell but the man and his followers will be just as much McCain's constituency if elected as Stewart's audience. McCain understands that; I'm not so sure liberals do. They have felt so non-represented and outside the system for so long that they may assume a return to power by Democrats or anyone outside the neocon camp must mean the same thing for the forces of the far right.

In 2004, Democrats chose John Kerry for his "electability." One reason for that was because, like many other Democratic leaders and Presidential hopefuls, Kerry had voted for the potential use of force against Iraq at a time when, in the aftermath of September 11, to do otherwise seemed political suicide. A few years later and the Iraq War's growing unpopularity left his Party's core unable to fully embrace him. Even as they screamed "Anyone but Bush" at their rallies, they kept adding, under their breath, "But, John, what the f__k were you thinking?"

Kerry tried to explain the concepts of an evolving position and conscience but was simply too stiff and pedantic to convince anybody. McCain does not have that problem. He is charismatic and he has lived the principles he endorses over and over again. I hope that in winning over his core, he does not lose his populism. But that will only happen if the public understands that you have to let McCain be McCain and that means something more complicated, more emotional, and more human that what typically fits in a column headline or a ten second soundbyte . . . or a single Party's ideology.

They will be plenty of times in the future when his followers will also ask of him, "But, John, what the f__k were you thinking?" What is crucial is not the what but rather that he was and will be thinking. That is what we have been missing from the Oval Office for some time now.

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