Old Flame

by Jonathan Chait | July 30, 2008

The presidential election has an oddly placid feel to it. Four years ago, the notion that George W. Bush would get another four years in office, actually ratified by a plurality of the voters, was more than any liberal could bear, and, after the election, there was loose talk everywhere about "Jesusland" and wanting to flee to Canada. This time, even though Democrats are extremely enthusiastic about Barack Obama, that life-and-death quality is absent. I think the reason is that a lot of liberals kind of like John McCain. I know I do.

Eight years ago, I was a hard-core liberal McCainiac. Here was a Republican saying things no other Republican would say and fighting, Teddy Roosevelt-style, to wrest his party from the hands of the plutocrats who controlled it. And, in the years immediately following that run, McCain established himself as perhaps the country's foremost progressive champion. He was an opponent, on moral and fiscal grounds, of tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the rich. He was also a fierce opponent of the extreme elements of the religious right. He was a proponent of global-warming legislation, the Law of the Sea Treaty, a moderate immigration bill, expanded public financing of elections, a tobacco tax, and many other liberal reforms.

Today, he is none of these things. McCain is almost never asked about his scandalous past. On those rare occasions when he is, he either dissembles (claiming to have opposed tax cuts on the grounds that there were no concurrent spending cuts) or interrupts the questioning with an angry outburst (in response to queries about his reportedly extended discussions about joining John Kerry's 2004 ticket). Today, McCain not only claims not to have altered his views for political convenience, he has preposterously made his alleged refusal to do so the central theme of his campaign.

Yet, somehow, I still feel some pangs of affinity for the old codger. Where Bush is peevish, entitled, and insecure, McCain's charming, ironic, and self-deprecating. Bush's path to public life was trading on his father's name to run a series of business ventures into the ground before being handed a baseball team. McCain's was an episode of awe-inspiring perseverance.

Yes, people put far too much stock in the candidates' personalities. (I'd vote for an obnoxious, pampered phony who shared my beliefs over a charming war hero who didn't.) But personality isn't completely meaningless, either. A president sets the tone for our public discourse, and McCain is pretty easy to take. His demagoguery comes with an awkward forced smile, which doesn't make it more forgivable but does make it less irritating.

As for his substantive views, they do (now) closely resemble Bush's. Yet the upside to a candidate who changes his philosophical orientation as often as McCain is that he could always switch back. While I certainly wouldn't recommend that anybody go so far as to vote for him on that basis, it still offers some grounds for hope. The Bush presidency is like being married to a sociopath. A McCain presidency would be more like being married to a drug addict--however badly he behaves, he could always sober up.

McCain's most longstanding conservative principle is his aversion to wasteful spending. But this has always sprung from an aversion to waste, not a Goldwater-esque opposition to government in principle. McCain's reformist impulses on spending are far more congenial to the progressive vision. If nothing else, his longstanding repugnance for pork-barrel spending would hold out the prospect of clearing away waste in the federal budget. McCain voted against the subsidy-bloated 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill. He nobly opposes the farm bill, one of the few issues where McCain has a sensible position and Obama does not. If McCain could actually trim some corporate welfare from the budget, it would create more fiscal and political space for the next Democratic president to spend money on necessary things like health care.

The best aspect of a McCain presidency is that, while it would probably follow the policies of George W. Bush, it would put an end to the politics of Karl Rove. I went back and reread Michael Lewis's 1997 New York Times Magazine profile of McCain, which gushed (persuasively) over McCain long before McCain- gushing had become a media cliché. You can see in it that, even before his first presidential campaign made him persona non grata in the GOP, McCain really was a highly bipartisan figure. The article cites McCain working unusually closely with Democrats, and quotes Democrats lavishing praise on him. He impugns his own party's leadership as corrupt. He jokingly refers to his younger political self as a "freshman right-wing Nazi." Conservative ideologues, as a rule, do not liken conservatism to national socialism.

Liberals tend to view the press's love affair with McCain as a wildly unfair act of bias. They have a point. On the other hand, they should take some heart in the fact that McCain obviously cherishes the approval of the mainstream (and even liberal) media. His accessibility to the press and public is something small-d democrats should cheer. McCain has conducted interviews with very liberal publications like Grist. He's promised to undertake an American version of "Prime Minister's Questions," whereby members of Congress could spar with him.

Does McCain spin and dissemble? Of course. But the current administration's practices go far beyond mere spin. In Bush's Washington, critics are enemies to be dismissed rather than engaged. A McCain presidency would promise to dismantle the whole Rovian method that has torn open such a deep wound in the national psyche.

Beneath his wildly fluctuating ideological positions, McCain is an establishmentarian Republican. Unlike Bush, he cares about elite opinion. He is comfortable sharing power in the traditional postwar style rather than monopolizing it. He might not be another Teddy Roosevelt, but right now another Gerald Ford doesn't look so bad.

The idea that McCain could establish a reputation as a maverick by standing up to his party on numerous issues, win back his party's support by abandoning nearly all his heterodoxies, then prevail by portraying himself as an unwavering man of principle is nauseating. Yet somehow the idea of a McCain presidency itself doesn't terrify me. What can I say? Bush has lowered my standards.

 

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