FEBRUARY 28, 2000
What explains "McCain chic"? The commentariat's theory of the moment is that John McCain is to Bill Clinton what Jimmy Carter was to Richard Nixon. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. recently put it, the Arizona senator embodies "the desire to cleanse politics of the stain of the Clinton scandals." But, even assuming Dionne is right and the public really is thirsting for an anti-Clinton (if you don't want to assume that, turn to page six for Sean Wilentz's argument against "Clinton fatigue"), why is McCain that man? After all, he's running in a field full of candidates vying to be the anti-Clinton. In fact, when George W. Bush and Bill Bradley were up, that's what the press called them. Why has McCain claimed the mantle?
Of course, there's McCain's war record and his genuinely anti-Clintonian history of self-sacrifice. But personal narratives don't tell themselves--ask Bob Dole, who had a war record as gripping as McCain's and couldn't (or wouldn't) use it to define his candidacy. As important as the story McCain has to tell has been his ability to tell it--an ability that is strikingly, yes, Clintonian.
McCain, like Clinton, is a seducer. In fact, the two men have seduced many of the same reporters (see the collected works of The New Yorker's Joe Klein). And they do it the same way: with a preternatural passion (and talent) for gabbing. Sure, McCain pokes fun at Clinton's speechifying. But the endless conversations on the McCain bus are this year's version of the famous Clinton bull sessions. And McCain's Senate detractors say the same things as Clinton's: that he prefers speech to action, that he blows beautiful hot air and never gets anything done.
And it's not just the amount of speech; it's the content. McCain, like Clinton (and unlike Dole or, say, Bradley), is at home in a confessional culture. Both revel in private disclosure. (Although, of course, Clinton tried to shut the door once it threatened his presidency.) Clinton's 1992 riffs about his underwear and his rocky marriage were, at the time, groundbreaking. But this year McCain has set an entirely new standard. His masterful tell-all memoir about his life as a POW was just the beginning. During the endless hours spent with reporters on his campaign bus, which has been said to resemble a "24-hour Webcam," McCain essentially puts himself on the national couch. It's not just straight talk, it's straight id--an endless series of stream-of-consciousness reflections. He chats about taking melatonin, his wife's anxieties about his presidential bid, his divorce, his hatred of his pet chicken, his adoption of his daughter Bridget, his animus toward Leonardo DiCaprio. During several weeks on the bus, I never heard him declare any subject off-limits. These self-revelations deliver what reporters, and indeed many voters, crave: emotional accessibility. Sure, reporters don't call it that. They write about McCain's "authenticity" or his "break from politics as usual." But it boils down to the same thing.
Though they see Clinton's far milder self-disclosures as evidence of generational decline, McCain's conservative boosters look past this side of him. The Weekly Standard's David Brooks has described McCain as the "anti- boomer," entirely devoid of narcissism: "The candidate doesn't need to make up heroic rites of passage about the day he headed off to school. Instead, he describes almost every issue as a conflict between sacrifice, which is what the World War II experience now symbolizes, and immediate gratification, which is what Woodstock and yuppiedom symbolize." Sure, McCain's war record is inspiring, and, yes, it kept him far from Woodstock and the tumult of the 1960s. But, in his willingness to emote and to reveal, McCain is every bit the boomer. He shares with Clinton a generational style that distinguishes them both from all the presidents who came before.
McCain is similar to Clinton in another way as well. Like Clinton, he brilliantly captures the spirit of '60s reformism while steering clear of its substance. In 1992, the Clinton campaign endlessly broadcast that picture of a young Clinton shaking John F. Kennedy's hand. McCain also claims the Kennedy mantle, and he sometimes sounds shockingly like RFK. Here's a snippet from the stump: "When those young people tell me there are no great causes left in the world, I say everyplace there's a veteran without care, there's a great cause; everyplace there's a senior without a shelter, there's a great cause; everyplace there's a hungry child, there's a great cause." He wants, he says, to inspire young people "to serve causes greater than their own self- interest." It's rousing stuff.
But sacrifice for what, exactly? McCain, like Clinton, talks about sacrifice--in part because calling for sacrifice makes candidates sound noble. That's part of what made Clinton's micro-initiatives (v-chips, school uniforms, etc.) so appealing. They suggested a new government discipline but, in reality, asked little of adults while appealing to their moralism about kids. McCain's agenda is similarly modest. The centerpiece of his "great crusade," the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, is a rather small rack on which to hang such lofty rhetoric. The legislation was fairly limited to begin with, and it has been so whittled down over the years that some hard- line campaign finance reformers have abandoned it as meaningless.
On most other issues, McCain also seems content to leave things as they are. He would keep to the Clintonian path of fiscal conservatism and free trade. On social issues, he clearly has no interest in stirring up controversy. Ask him about health care, education, or even abortion, and he's likely to tell you to wait until campaign finance reform purges special interests from the process, allowing the rational people in the political center to hammer out a compromise. It's hard to see where the public sacrifice comes in.
In fact, both Clinton and McCain are really co-opters. They specialize in siphoning off the passion from truly radical crusades while simultaneously signaling that they pose no deep threat to the status quo. Clinton did it vis-a-vis left-liberalism. In a time of recession, he tapped into the left's long- frustrated desire for a government willing to act against the market's brutalities. But, once in office, he focused on reducing the deficit instead. McCain may be doing the same to the populist crusades of the 1990s. He speaks the "government is corrupt" language of Ross Perot and Jerry Brown, but, unlike his predecessors, he doesn't envision his process reforms leading to policies much different from those in place today.
Lacking, as it does, much in the way of domestic policy, McCain's campaign ends up resting largely on a tautology: "Vote for John McCain. He is John McCain." Even his aides will tell you they hope this election comes down to character--and it's hard to imagine a more narcissistic platform, even from Clinton.