Monday, November 22, 2010

The Myth of John McCain

There was a time in my life when I loved John McCain.

I saw him as the bulwark against the rise of the far right in the Republican Party. I cheered his every move. His stand against the Bush Tax Cuts. His participation in the so called "Gang of 14." His strong environmental record. He seemingly strong stand on gay rights.

And then, little by little, I started falling out of love with McCain. As 2008 drew near, he started changing his positions on issues. By 2008 he started to look like someone that had sold out for the GOP nomination.

I don't really know how many times, I've heard people talk about how John McCain has changed and how they have grown to hate the Senator from Arizona. The media, which really fell hard for McCain in 2000, has turned against him and can't wait for a moment to report the latest infraction. In the eyes of many, John McCain sold his soul and many of his former followers are saying "good riddance."

But did we really know who John McCain was? Did we see a few actions and imagined that he had to be "just like us" only find out that he wasn't? Did John McCain really change?

I'm offering a counter-argument to the one posed by many liberals and moderates (like myself). I think in a way what many people who claimed love of McCain were really in love with a myth, maybe partly stoked by McCain himself. I think we saw what we wanted to see in McCain. Like how many saw President Obama when he campaigned for the presidency in 2008, we made the John McCain into something bigger than life and were shocked when at the end of the day he was a politician.

We tend to forget that politicians are people-pleasers. They try hard to appeal to the electorate. Sarah Palin took advantage of the growing Tea Party movement and fashioned herself as its leader. Barack Obama spoke at times as a post-partisan moderate and at others an old-fashioned liberal during the 2008 campaign. They do what they can to win.

But in our modern political environment, where we view politics as a religion, we tend to view mere pols as gods that can do no wrong.

Writing in 2008 Edward McClelland notes that McCain was and is a politician that wants to win. He isn't God, or Ghandi or Martin Luther King, but a candidate that wanted to win. McClelland writes:
McCain has run for the presidency twice, as two completely different candidates. His campaigns and his image have been shaped by the nasty partisanship of the late 20th and early 21st century, an era that may be remembered as the Late Culture Wars. McCain has never seemed comfortable with that style of politics. Despite his identification as a conservative, he's been willing to reach across the aisle to work with Democrats who shared his concept of reform. In 2000, McCain tried to be a liberal's conservative, holding stream-of-consciousness press conferences on his bus, bashing right-wing preachers as "agents of intolerance" and opposing repeal of Roe v. Wade. Republicans were unimpressed, so when McCain finally won their nomination, he picked as his running mate a woman who had less than two years' experience as a governor -- a woman young enough to be his daughter, or his third wife, even -- but who belongs to a Pentecostal church, baits the Washington media and wouldn't allow any woman to have an abortion...

McCain and his journalistic entourage also had a common enemy: the Republican Establishment, personified by George W. Bush. It felt ennobling to travel with a candidate who whaled on Jerry Falwell, and whose underfunded campaign checked in every night at the Marriott. A lot has changed in eight years: By 2008, McCain had given a speech at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, had promised not to repeal Bush's tax cuts, had declared his opposition to Roe v. Wade, and was staunchly defending the war in Iraq. The anti-politician had learned that stiffing the Republican base was no way to win the party's nomination.

In his first run, McCain campaigned as a reformer who could win over independents. That was before anyone had heard the terms "red state" and "blue state." In 2008, there is no middle ground. There is a liberal America and a conservative America, each unable to acknowledge that the other side is intelligent, honorable or possessed of a reasonable opinion. To win his party's nomination, McCain had to campaign under the team colors. The man who had sworn he would never compromise his principles to win an election, had become ... a politician. That transformation helped McCain with Republican voters, but not reporters. Wait a minute, they seemed to say, we thought you were one of us. But you're nothing more than a, a ... conservative!
The thing is, McCain was and always has been a conservative. Yes, he strayed from the path from time to time, but he has been pretty consistently conservative. Don't believe me? Well, in a 2008 blog post, Jim Geraghty notes that McCain's lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union was... 82.1. That might not be perfect, but it's still pretty good to be considered on the right side of the political spectrum.

But what about all his flip-flopping on things like immigration reform or Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

McClelland notes that the electorate had changed mightily in the eight years between McCain's presidential runs. In 2000, he could fashion himself as a moderate because there still seemed to be a middle ground. That middle ground was eroded over the Bush years, and by 2008 McCain realized that to win the Republican nomination, he had to run as a loyal Republican. This meant changing his stance on immigration, somewhat slightly in 2008 and even moreso in his 2010 primary run.

I know there are some who think that McCain should have "stood his principles" and been willing to lose rather than sell out. But again, we forget these are politicians who have sacrificed a lot to win office. They are not going to give all up just for the good of the nation or what have you.

Which leads to another point. McCain's support from 2000 was a mile wide and an inch deep. Yes, there were a lot of people who said they liked him, but you never really heard these people going out and knocking doors for McCain. He said things we liked to hear, but we weren't going to much other nod our heads in agreement.

McCain, who wanted to win, knew he needed to get conservatives on board. They were the ones that were organized and would support him even if they really didn't think he was a "true conservative."

I'm not saying all this because I like what John McCain has done recently. I don't. But that said, I do understand why McCain does what he does. And I now see that McCain was and is a politician, not some kind of Moses leading us all to the promiseland.

There is a lesson for moderates and even liberals here. We need to stop falling in love with politicians and see them as they are: our represenatives that can work with us, or not. But that means getting away from our computers and getting organized in ways not unlike the Tea Party has.

In the end, I'm not mad with John McCain. He never was in love with me in the first place.


Paul Wartenberg said...

It makes you wonder where the middle ground got to. Where did all the moderates really go? Not to the Democrats, otherwise they'd have done better in 2010... maybe the moderates are fleeing the political struggle altogether, which is far worse...

Leonidas said...

I agree that there was much of a myth that many moderates believed, but some of us were just happy to have a guy who would stand up to the far-wing of his own party and who would cross the aisle when utter stupidity was holding things up. McCain was that man and that was no myth.

If moderates and centrists are looking for their own ideological purity test, well good luck finding someone to support, if, however, they can content themselves with someone who will cut through a lot of partisan crap like McCain did, they might have more luck.