Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Wasting Effects of Potomac Fever
I'll admit it; I'm one of those progressives who used to get a little gooey for John McCain. The POW experience, yes; his leadership on campaign finance reform and willingness to speak out about the absurdity of defense spending (something I need to start thinking/writing more about; consider the appalling fact that what we pay for any number of obsolete Cold War weapons systems still getting built would, if canceled, provide body armor and excellent health care for all troops who have served recently) during the '90s, absolutely; his positve eagerness to take on the more repulsive aspects of the Zombie Army in 2000 and promise of an inclusive national politics, more than anything.

Needless to say, that inspiring individual has long since disappeared. The only time I've ever heard McCain in person was during the summer of 2000, when he spoke at the Philadelphia "Shadow Convention" organized by Arianna Huffington, who had left the ranks of conservatives a few years earlier but wasn't yet a loud-and-proud Democratic partisan. Huffington, like a lot of us who were fairly disgusted with both major-party options that year, venerated McCain as a voice for reform who could transcend the endless partisan battling that's come to characterize our politics, and made him the keynote speaker at the Annenberg Center event. McCain came out onstage, started with a joke or two, and then quickly stated that he supported his party's nominee, George W. Bush, as the true candidate of reform in the race. As he said these words, his face said something very different; McCain looked like a kid sitting down to a meal of liver and creamed spinach. He was booed relentlessly, and stormed off the stage, leaving an embarrassed Huffington to apologize.

Though he continued to work closely with the Democrats through the first two or three years of Bush's term, and reportedly considered changing parties, his path was set. In 2004, there were two men who had sufficient stature and universal appeal that they could have ended the Bush presidency: McCain and Colin Powell. One, McCain, still entertained national ambitions, and fellow Vietnam vet John Kerry tried to appeal to them by making overtures regarding the vice-presidential slot. McCain declined--and having done so, he quickly turned into George W. Bush's most enthusiastic and effective advocate. Then and now, it seemed almost like a case of Stockholm Syndrome: Bush operatives had dragged McCain's name and family through the mud of South Carolina in 2000, and the blood feud between Bush consligiere Karl Rove and top McCain strategist John Weaver had gotten so bad that Weaver had begun to consult for Democrats. But obviously some bargain had been struck.

Now here it is three years later, and McCain is unrecognizable from his insurgent-Republican 2000 incarnation. Jonathan Chait sets it up pretty well here:

"This is not Luke Skywalker here," said Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), discussing his friend and Senate colleague John McCain's second run for the presidency. "This is a totally different campaign."

Graham was looking for a way to reassure his fellow conservatives that they no longer had anything to fear from McCain. His choice of metaphor is one of those windows into the fundamental cultural gap that separates hard-core conservatives from the rest of humanity. To most people, who think of Luke Skywalker as a hero battling an evil and immensely powerful empire, Graham's implication would be seen as an unmitigated insult. In the world of the GOP elite, though, it's a form of praise: No, no, don't worry, McCain's with the empire now.

Now watch him madly pander. In the same interview, [National Review reporter Ramesh] Ponnuru asked McCain about cloning:

"Sen. McCain: I'm obviously against any human cloning. Obviously.

"Ponnuru: Would you be willing to ban it?

"Sen. McCain: Sure.

"Ponnuru: So you'd support something like the Brownback bill?

"Sen. McCain: Yes. I think I'm a cosponsor."

At this point in the interview, his advisor interjected to say, "I'll double-check that." It turned out McCain was not a cosponsor. His casual language about a matter of the deepest philosophical weight--Ban it? Sure!--suggests he knows little about the bill except that supporting it would help him win the nomination.

Chait goes on to note that "What makes McCain's conversion all the more tragic is that it's plainly not working." I'd replace "tragic" with "pathetic." McCain was so appealing in 2000 because he seemed to represent a politics that was both authentic and principled. He was a victim of the multi-stage process by which we now elect presidents: had he somehow been able to face the general electorate first rather than chunks of Republican or Republican/independent primary voters in a handful of states, he likely would have won by acclimation. Instead, Bush's campaign used their deeper pockets, stronger campaign apparatus, willingness to swim in muck, and--crucially--the five primary-less weeks between New Hampshire and South Carolina that blunted McCain's momentum, and he wasn't able to continue much beyond that. (At the risk of getting run out of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, I'll recommend a second New Republic piece here--this article about the weirdness of our presidential selection process. Suffice to say that McCain 2000 would have been an unstoppable candidate a few decades earlier.)

Evidently, the political lesson McCain learned from 2000 was that principled guys finish last, and that Straight Talk takes you straight to the loser's lounge. Hence his now-relentless pandering and constant visits to "crazy base land." The Carpetbagger reports an even more stomach-turning instance of this:

I was skeptical about John McCain’s chances in the GOP primaries before, but now I’m convinced — he’s going to lose. What convinced me was a chat McCain had with reporters yesterday aboard his campaign bus, which eventually turned to the distribution of taxpayer-subsidized condoms in Africa to fight the transmission of HIV. What followed, the NYT’s Adam Nagourney explained, “was a long series of awkward pauses, glances up to the ceiling and the image of one of Mr. McCain’s aides, standing off to the back, urgently motioning his press secretary to come to Mr. McCain’s side.”

Q: “What about grants for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush’s policy, which is just abstinence?”

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) “Ahhh. I think I support the president’s policy.”

Q: “So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?”

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) “You’ve stumped me.”

Q: “I mean, I think you’d probably agree it probably does help stop it?”

Mr. McCain: (Laughs) “Are we on the Straight Talk express? I’m not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. [Speaking to Press Secretary Brian Jones], would you find out what my position is on contraception — I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it.”

Q: “But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?”

Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second pause) “Get me [Sen. Tom Coburn’s] thing, ask [senior adviser John Weaver] to get me Coburn’s paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I’ve never gotten into these issues before.”

First, on the substance, McCain comes across as a bumbling fool. He doesn’t know if he believes condoms are effective in preventing the spread of HIV? He’s been a member of Congress for 24 years, has participated in thousands of policy hearings, and has voted on hundreds of bills relating to public health. Now that he’s running for president, McCain literally has no idea what he thinks about something as simple as condoms and HIV? Please.

I was particularly fond of the “I have to find out what my position was” remark. Someone can ask him an extremely simple question, but before he answers it, McCain wants to check to make sure he believes what he thinks he believes. “Would you find out what my position is on contraception?” Here’s a wacky idea, senator, why don’t you just tell us what you actually think?

Which leads us to the second problem — he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to think anymore. McCain is so embarrassingly desperate, he’s utterly lost when it comes to basic questions like these. It’s almost certainly what he was doing with those 12 seconds of silence, thinking over what James Dobson might do if he acknowledged that condoms can play a role in stopping the spread of HIV, and what the media might do if they find a dozen examples of him supporting broader public access to publicly-financed contraception.

So the poor, sad man says nothing. McCain can’t tell the truth, he can’t share his opinions, and he can’t remember what he thought before he sold out. It’s so genuinely pathetic, I almost feel sorry for the guy.

Don't feel sorry for McCain; feel sorry for America. It wasn't intended to be this way, but we've created a process that deforms and deranges once-proud public servants. That reality-resistant psychos like Preacher Pat Robertson and Radical Cleric Dobson have, or are perceived to have, an effective veto over the Republican presidential nomination is terrible for our country--even when they lose. In a two-party system, each party has to be a check on the other; as the Republican primary electorate drifts ever-farther from the mainstream of national political life, a void opens for the Democrats to indulge their own worst tendencies and complement the Republicans' terrible screw-ups with awful mistakes of their own.

McCain has become a sad old man trying and failing to keep up with the parade, undone as a leader by his own ambitions. As they say, the only cure for Potomac Fever is embalming fluid.

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