Friday, September 05, 2008

McCain and the Laws of Political Physics

McCain’s speech was good. Certainly not great -- he’s much better in a small room than a big room, and without a teleprompter, which I actually think is to his credit -- but good. It seemed a little flat and uninspired to me, though not offensive in any way, until he began discussing his war experience, which was rousing. It’s rousing, of course, partly just because of the details (unimaginable to almost all of us), but also because McCain is a decent man who turns the focus of his trials from personal glory into a revelation of the beauty in support from other people and belief in causes “bigger than yourself.” The whole speech reminded me why I like McCain so much, and why I wanted to have the chance to vote for him in 2000.

In writing about the conventions here and commenting on posts by friends and others, I’ve been accused of drinking the Obama Kool-Aid. Well, I’m an Obama supporter, no doubt. I’m also a real fan of McCain, and I hope their debates maintain the tone of their own individual speeches. But I want to write this post in a different spirit, because I can understand why my strong support for Obama might cause you to look askance at my analysis of McCain. So, I’m writing this post as if McCain were up against Hillary Clinton. Remember how I feel about her? I think Hillary is smarter than McCain (in the wonky way), but I have a much easier time liking and trusting him. I certainly know with whom I’d rather be in a foxhole, and up to a point I consider government and citizens to share a foxhole.

But the fact is, I’d be very torn right now if this were a choice between McCain and Hillary. I’m not going to mention her in what follows, but allow her presence to float above it, as a reminder that I’m sincerely writing about McCain and the country right now, and not about Barack Obama.

In a vacuum, it’s unfair to call John McCain another George Bush. But this isn’t a vacuum. And here’s how I break this down. McCain has not been extremely popular with the base of his party, because, as one of my friends said the other night, the entire reason he was considered a maverick was that he pushed a lot of the Democratic agenda while serving as a Republican. (Of course, those singing his praises as a maverick at the RNC declined to elaborate on this.) But how does that behavior and reputation translate into McCain winning the party’s nomination this year at a time when the party leans particularly hard to the right? Well, 80% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Whether or not you think it’s fair to blame Bush for a lot of that, that’s politics. And work. And family. If people aren’t happy or prosperous, they blame the person at the top. (It works the other way, too, as we know.) That widespread discontent created an opening for McCain. A good deal of that 80% has to be composed of Republicans, and presumably many of them initially supported Bush but are eager for a different kind of president. I won’t go through the roll call of other Republican nominees, but it seems likely that all of them reminded voters more of Bush, on some level, than McCain did. McCain’s now-long-ago criticisms of Bush probably didn’t hurt.

So, McCain gets the nomination. Now what?

Look at his VP pick. Forget about questions of Palin’s experience or foreign policy ideas or -- more jaw-droppingly -- whether she should even have to talk to the press. Let’s give her the benefit of our many doubts and call her a strong candidate. Is she the kind of running mate McCain would naturally choose? Here’s a woman he met in February, who he had spoken to in person once. On the list of those passed over, you have, among others, Joe Lieberman, who, whatever else you think of him, is clearly a close longtime friend of McCain’s who challenges him on certain issues but strongly supports him on others, and who -- as a bonus -- might influence the Jewish vote in swing states like Florida and Ohio. You know that in a vacuum, the independent-minded McCain would love to pick someone like Lieberman. But it’s awfully hard to be a maverick from the top of the mountain, so McCain’s appealing pot-stirring tendencies are largely negated in this election. In fact, they’re inverted. In order to “make up for” his maverick ways to the base, he has to do things like choose Palin, who represents an extreme voice -- pro-creationism in schools, pro-life even in cases of rape or incest -- and who was clearly more popular with the rank and file in St. Paul than McCain was.

Or look at a specific issue, like torture or tax cuts. On both of those issues, McCain was initially a dissenting voice in the party (I think dissenting voices within parties are incredibly important), but has since fallen into step. Let’s focus on torture, since I think economic issues are more complicated and would require their own post (and probably a more educated author of the post). Here you have an American who is rightfully lionized for surviving a torture very few of us could. (And most miraculously, to me, he didn’t just survive, he came back with energy and optimism. That’s mind-boggling.) And call me crazy, but to me that gave his opinion a little more weight when he initially spoke up about current U.S. policies. It’s not what made him right, but it’s what gave him more weight. Republicans have gotten a lot of mileage in my lifetime from the religious language of good and evil, right and wrong. Well, here was an easy test, and they flunked it. Now McCain can’t mention that issue, because the party as a whole, as Andrew Sullivan wrote, has made torture a “litmus test,” and so -- and here is the crux of so many political problems, on both sides of the aisle -- McCain can’t be true to himself and lead the current incarnation of the party at the same time.

And this is why, unless Americans can handle cognitive dissonance even more than I think they can, McCain can’t win. It’s not even that he shouldn’t win, it’s that he can’t. He has a lot of credibility with one group -- independents, moderate Republicans -- that should move in inverse proportion to his credibility with another -- religious conservatives. And he’s up against a strong Democratic candidate in a year when, again, the country wants a change.

That vague-to-the-point-of-stultification word, “change,” gets tossed around a lot in both campaigns now, but we should get back to the basic political meaning of it: a different party. And this is why even Hillary might send my head spinning these days. Sometimes, in a democracy, changing the party in executive power is a matter of conditioning the parties. We too often think of ourselves, the citizens, as the children, and as the politicians as the parents -- we beg them to give us what we want, tell us what we want to hear, and then we reward them for it with good behavior (voting for them). But it should be the other way. Sometimes, a party just needs to be reprimanded. Not because it’s inherently evil, or because we’ll never trust or love it again, but just because parties can’t go around pooping on the rug without consequences.

I could easily vote for the McCain who spoke last night, who talked earnestly about ending “partisan rancor,” about how some Republicans had let us down over the past eight years, and sincerely congratulated his opponent on his accomplishments. But how am I supposed to square that with the rest of his party’s oblivious steadfastness in the face of such nearly unanimous public disappointment? How am I supposed to square it with the schoolyard taunts I heard the night before from Giuliani and Palin, the latter of whom proudly trumpeted her experience as a PTA mother before joining politics but derided Obama for being a community organizer before politics?

John McCain, bless him, for most of his life has been a loyal party member, but not a My Party, Right or Wrong kind of guy. As a senator, he can be that essential voice of dissent, that gadfly. But McCain’s not riding this party anymore; the party’s riding him.


Blogger Walter Evans said...

jmw, you're a very intelligent person, and a gifted writer, so I try my best to stay out of any substantive debate with you. That being said, I do have one question...

Wouldn't it be better for the country right now if McCain was to win this election?

I ask this honestly, and not simply because the GOP Kool-Aid continues to course through my veins. I am a Republican, no doubt. But, the truth is that I don't like McCain all that least not as our President. In fact, there have been extended periods in the past few months that I have given serious consideration to voting for Obama. At this point, the debates are going to do a lot to sway my final decision.

But, back to my question. It would seem to me that McCain would have a legitimate chance at bringing this country together. He is one of the few people in recent history who would be happy to work with Republicans or Democrats, and most of them would be equally as happy to work with him. Fair or not, I don't think the same can be said of President Obama.

3:22 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Well, Walter Evans (and you do confuse me by using that name, and you know why), I'm happy to be substantive. To address your question -- I actually don't think McCain himself is the problem, as this post points out. I think whatever else you believe about it, the Palin pick (over Lieberman) makes clear that McCain is mostly doing the party's bidding at this point, and the party hasn't exactly fostered a sense of bipartisan cooperation over the past eight years. (I'm not saying the Democrats have, but then they haven't had the same power over that time either.)

I agree that McCain has shown love to Democrats in the past (quite a bit), but I think you're arguing against Obama's similar temperament despite the facts. There are many Republicans and conservative intellectuals who have supported Obama during this campaign, and many Republicans who have worked with him and crowed about him. If it were Hillary, who I think is incredibly (and gleefully) divisive, I'd say your point could be an election-decider. But where do you get this idea that Obama would drive wedges between people? To me, it's the Republicans who have gone back to that playbook, shouting about generic "liberals" at their convention. McCain avoided that rhetoric, but it really dominated the rest, to my ears. Obama seems genuinely interested in reasonable debate, and seems to have a lot of Republicans who will vouch for that. All I can say is that the Democrats' Kool-Aid has never coursed through my veins (ask my NY friends). But maybe you and I just hear Obama differently. And I think McCain is an appealing candidate. I think this post speaks to the rest...

3:31 PM  
Blogger Walter Evans said...

To me, McCain's recent behavior/actions/decisions say a lot more about the political process than they do about McCain. You can't be a "maverick" and get elected President. The numbers are simply not there to support such an attempt. However, once in office, I suspect you would see a lot more of McCain's true personality start to show through again...beginning with his cabinet selections...Secretary of State Lieberman, anyone?

As for my question, I wasn't trying to make a comment about Obama at all. I think he would be perfectly willing to work with with both sides of the house. However, I just don't think the Republican party, as a whole, would ever give him that chance. Perhaps I'm wrong...we may soon see.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

JMW, sure McCain could have picked Lieberman, but then he would have lost the election for sure. There would have been a revolt within the Republican Party. Democrats hate him because he's betrayed them, and Republicans don't trust him because of his former associations. Personally, I am a big Lieberman fan, as I am a big McCain fan. So that ticket would have been great for me. But it would not have gotten elected.

It would be nice to stick to all of your principles, but this is an election for God's sake. You've got to use strategery.

2:23 AM  
Blogger Pomeroy Kinsey said...

This seems awfully idealistic. The simple fact of the matter is that McCain's base has held him in suspicion forever. Palin has tremendous value for the ticket. Since McCain is severely behind, and has been for several months (inTrade has his chances of winning at 42% - the highest it's been the entire time). Palin has tremendous strategic value for this ticket. To see politics without reference to the strategic elements - I can only sense some kind of idealistic and moralistic evaluation in your post - is naive.

That said, Palin has been incredibly popular for the base. Rush adores her, as do so many traditional conservatives, and evangelicals are in love with her as well. This is the first time either of those two groups have shown much interest in the McCain ticket. It wasn't too long ago that Rush was recommending registered Republicans to not vote if it was McCain on the ticket, but now many pundits treat this like the dream team ticket. It puts Obama in difficult situations that other VP candidates couldn't have, and there's real value in the minds of typical voters in a woman on this race. Even if the wedge strategy with regards to Hilary's supporters won't work (and it won't), it robs Obama's campaign of some of the civil rights value associated with the uniqueness of having a Black man in serious candidacy for the US presidency.

This was a good pick. It's got nothing to do with McCain being in the pockets of the party. It's got everything with McCain wanting to win, and with McCain being deeply behind in this race. Palin has risks, but she shores up the base, allowing McCain to focus more on the swing states, which he's actually in the better position to focus on being the centrist-moderate that he is.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Admittedly, much of your critique of McCain is on point. But the same critique applies to Obama.

On the VP pick, Obama picked Biden, at least in part, for political reasons (for example, to appeal to Catholics, small town voters, blue collar voters, etc.). Admittedly, neither of us can read Obama’s mind any more than we read McCain’s mind, but I think we can agree that both candidates likely took into account political considerations and that both candidates would have picked someone else if they lived in a fairytale land where things like getting elected don’t matter. You can squabble about the degree to which each candidate let political considerations influence his VP pick. That’s fine. But keep in mind that if McCain had picked Lieberman, he would have lost. It wouldn’t have been close. I don’t think Obama was in the same situation.

Furthermore, I don’t see how the two issues that you mention (creationism and pro-life) were reasons for McCain not to choose Palin. As you know, I do not believe in teaching creationism in school, but that’s a local issue, not a national one. I don’t see how this is an issue relevant to the VP position. It just another stamp of identity (along with small town, big family, enjoys hunting, etc.) that liberals are using to paint her as out-of-touch and not-one-of-us. I agree with Kraig’s comment in another post that Republicans are also making similar arguments; I don’t agree that it’s one-sided. (Kraig used the term “cultural identity,” a loaded word that implies some kind of racial element; frankly, I don’t think McCain has injected race into this election. Obama arguably has played the race card, albeit in a defensive, innocent-looking manner.)

As for Palin being pro-life, McCain is pro-life. On this issue, McCain was more true to his own beliefs in picking Palin over Lieberman.

The issue to focus on is national security. I think the democrats can argue that McCain was willing to risk the security of the United States in order to win an election.

On the issues, both candidates have changed their positions for political expedience. Obama’s list includes (1) public financing, (2) free trade/NAFTA, (3) gun control, (4) Bush’s energy bill, (5) meeting with foreign leaders, etc. This flip-flop argument applies to both candidates.

The issue of “torture” (another loaded word) is not as simple as you or Andrew Sullivan portray it. I think we can both imagine scenarios where we would approve some coercive methods of questioning. Anyone who says that such methods are always wrong and should never be used is a naïve idealist or political opportunist. That said, I can understand the argument that, despite these imagined scenarios, in the world we live in today, it would be better to restrict or outlaw certain methods of coercion as a general rule rather than allow fallible people to make very difficult, more nuanced decisions. It’s not a black and white issue; we live in a world with a million shades of grey.

I understand your point about wanting to change parties. Is your argument that, even if McCain would be a better President, the Republican party should be tossed out?

11:38 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

Pomeroy, I'm not naive about politics -- in fact, my belief is that either McCain or Obama is likely to preside over a pretty troubled country for the next four to eight years. I'm just trying to decide who would be better in that position. The strategy of picking Palin makes sense, and I don't expect McCain to want to lose. The point I was trying to make was that McCain loses a certain consistency by hitching himself to the current establishment, a consistency I look for in a not overly idealistic way. Obama, for instance, obviously picked Biden for strategic reasons as well, but there's nothing in Biden that massively contradicts Obama's core character. For me, McCain showed his honest self in 2000, when he took a risk by confronting the evangelical base and got massively burned for it. You can say that he's only learned his practical lesson from that, but I think I speak for a lot of crucial moderates and independents when I say that McCain pandering to the religious base with Palin might make strategic sense but it eliminates much of what was likable about him (the whole "maverick" thing, as they like to keep reminding us). I suppose I'm not saying anything different than you, I'm just saying it from another perspective that's out there in the electorate. You see it as a shoring up of the base, which it is. I just found a great deal of McCain's value to be his ability to keep the base honest, and I personally think that either party should be doing that at this very divisive time in our history -- I appreciate that Obama has talked fairly tough in front of unions and educators, to name two, and in that I consider him to be keeping his base honest.

Jeff, about the VP pick, see what I said above. Of course Biden was a strategic pick. But I don't think you can say he was as transparently calculated a pick as Palin was. Maybe you just accept pandering more than I do, as an inevitable part of the process. I can understand that. But I have to say, again from an independent perspective, that I like that Obama's pick of Biden was partly made to appease undecided voters in the middle, those who worried about Obama's relative youth and lack of experience. He didn't pick Hillary to placate a part of the party that he arguably should have placated if you, Pomeroy and others are right about how politics "works." He also didn't pick a super-liberal running mate to satisfy the Democratic equivalent of the religious base. I respect that.

Three more things (with apologies for my going on and on). First, you write, "I think the democrats can argue that McCain was willing to risk the security of the United States in order to win an election." That's very plainly stated, and I think it's true. Do you not think that's pretty damning in a year when you have spoken about your respect for the opposing candidate? (I think Republicans can make that argument, too, and many of the country's less religious and more philosophically conservative figureheads -- George Will, Charles Krauthammer, etc. -- have made this argument.)

Secondly, I don't think Sullivan and I are over-simplifying the torture issue. Because, as you say, the issue doesn't exist in a vacuum, it exists in the way it's been utilized by Bush and Cheney. I'm not sitting on a barstool talking hypotheticals, and saying that I would never authorize the torture of someone for vital information. I'm actually looking at the record of hundreds -- if not thousands -- of detainees being regularly tortured. Here, I will gladly take any shots at my "idealism." This is an idealistic country, on some levels -- hell, the Republicans are constantly talking about that. So, yes, it's idealistic to say our broad policy should be one of not using torture. But it's also, in my mind, a very basic tenet that has made this country great in the past. It's also the very reason we honor McCain's experience so much -- because he suffered through unjust treatment.

Lastly, about creationism, because this speaks to something even bigger. You say it's a local issue, and I agree with that. But I also assume -- unless you've changed a lot since we used to hang out -- that you bristle at too much encroachment of religion in civic life. And here's where I believe very strongly in the more symbolic values of the presidency. Yes, some local school district might decide to teach creationism, but I don't want to reward that mindset by honoring someone who shares it with the second-highest office in the land. I think who we choose to be president says a lot about what we value and who we want to be. There's that idealism again -- and again, the Republicans seemed to be more than fine with such symbolism when it was attached to Ronald Reagan. I suppose I find the same symbolism in Obama. In Palin, I see someone who is undoubtedly smarter than her most severe critics give her credit for, but who also represents a constituency that I think has been over-represented in this country for most of my lifetime.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

By any fair measure, McCain has separated himself from the Republican base more than Obama has separated himself from the Democratic base. McCain was one of the first Republicans to criticize Bush’s handling of Iraq. McCain voted against Bush’s 2005 energy bill (which Obama supported). McCain differs with Bush on drilling in ANWR (we’ll see how long this holds up). He voted against the prescription drug bill. McCain favors federal funding of stem cell research. He disagrees with Bush and Republican on climate change. He voted against Bush’s tax cuts (though, for political reasons, he later took the position that the cuts should be made permanent).

Your point is that Obama has “talked tough” to unions and educators. I’m not sure whether this tough talk is Obama’s Sister Souljah moment, or whether his tough talk is backed up with real, concrete policy proposals.

This gets to your later point on the VP pick. Obama did not need to pick a “super-liberal running mate” to shore up his base.

Yes, I think the national security issue may be damning. But, like I said before, everyone (pro-Palin and anti-Palin) needs to chill out and wait at least a few weeks before judging Palin as a VP. Under a tremendous amount of pressure, she performed way above expectations in her convention speech. The TV, web, and newspaper “reporting” has been terrible. I want to read some real reporting in magazines and newspapers over the next few weeks, and I want to see the debates. I remain skeptical of Palin, but I think she should be given a fair chance.

I haven’t followed the torture issue as closely as you. I know it was reported that the CIA may have used water-boarding against Abu Zubaydah. I’m not going to lose sleep over that. I’m guessing that to reach the hundreds or thousands that you identify, you are including Abu Ghraib. I don’t think anyone in leadership, including McCain, has supported what happened in Abu Ghraib. Re-reading your post, I see your criticism is that McCain did not give a full-throated denunciation of torture at the RNC convention. Fine.

You are right: I bristle at too much encroachment of religion in civic life. My point is that liberals (including the media) use this as symbol of “cultural identity” (Kraig’s term for the out-of-touch/not-one-of-us arguments) to scare up votes. Like I said before, this is local issue, not a national one. Moreover, what portion of public school children attends schools that teach creationism? I’d love to see a report on that. I think it’s virtually zero. For all the hysteria over this issue, I don’t think you have seen many liberal bloggers or even the mainstream media point out this information from an AP report:

--“Palin said during her 2006 gubernatorial campaign that if she were elected, she would not push the state Board of Education to add creation-based alternatives to the state's required curriculum, or look for creationism advocates when she appointed board members.”

--“Palin's children attend public schools and Palin has made no push to have creationism taught in them.”

--“Neither have Palin's socially conservative personal views on issues like abortion and gay marriage been translated into policies during her 20 months as Alaska's chief executive. It reflects a hands-off attitude toward mixing government and religion by most Alaskans.”

--"She has basically ignored social issues, period," said Gregg Erickson, an economist and columnist for the Alaska Budget Report.

Oh my goodness, run for the hills! The religious police are taking over the country.

Republicans use the gun control issue in the same way.

9:54 PM  

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