A (Very) Conservative and Eminent Journalist’s Judgment on John McCain: “Insecure, Reactive, Poll-Watching Hack…Tawdry, Unseemly, Yucky.”

by Martin Peretz | August 23, 2010

This column in this morning’s Daily Beast is by Tunku Varadarajan.

“Barnacle McCain” is the way one might characterize the senior senator from Arizona, now fused so ferociously to the tidal rocks of a fifth term that he will say pretty much anything, no matter how much the utterance is at odds with his older, saner positions, in order to secure his own reelection. All the polls indicate that John McCain will, come Tuesday, knock out J.D. Hayworth, his clownish challenger, in the state’s Republican Senate primaries; and, having done so, it is impossible to see his Democratic opponent beating him in November. Arizona is, after all, the Tea Party writ large. But I do wish that McCain had not fought the primaries as an insecure, reactive, poll-watching hack who focus-groups his way to reelection. From a first-timer, such strategic micro-tailoring would be understandable; from a fifth-timer, the whole exercise seems tawdry, unseemly, yucky.
Conservatives have always found McCain confounding, and infuriating: No one has ever counted him among the more ideological of Republican politicians, his reputation being, instead, that of an “honor” politician who laid great, often gaudy, stress on Doing the Right Thing, on being a “maverick,” a condition that bestowed a certain unpredictable magic on him while at the same time freeing him of ideological taint. McCain gloried in the label, using it to differentiate himself from the rock-ribbed right, a ploy that was successful—and largely credible—until he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008.

He also said:

The decent thing for McCain to have done after Obama’s election would have been to say that he was calling it quits, giving way in the Senate to a politician less spent. But he didn’t. Politicians without a guiding ideology are, frequently, the ones who stay in the game longest. Manic redefinition, constant reorientation, tracking the latest directions on the ideological GPS, places them on an unending trajectory of reelection, a journey that ends only with death. The late Senator Robert Byrd was one such man; McCain, without Byrd’s godawful stains, is shaping to be another. I don’t have reliable data on the topic, so consider this an anecdotal observation, but this is how vainglorious politicians often end their careers—hanging on a little too long, at great cost to their public image. Think of McCain as the Liza Minnelli of American politics.

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