There's Something About JJ

by digby

I wrote about this before, but I think it's worth reiterating. The "special relationship" between John McCain and the press is particularly dangerous in one respect: he is not held accountable for his words on the stump, (while Democrats' are used against them as if they'd carved them in stone from Mt Rushmore) and he's not held liable for his gross and obvious panders and policy shifts. I'm not sure I've ever seen a politician have this kind of industrial strength teflon before.

Dave Neiwert addressed this the other night over on FDL:

A lot of wags have been chortling about "the McCain Moment," myself included, because it encapsulates so neatly much of what's wrong with John McCain. But not everything.

We also need to deal with the McCain Of The Moment. The guy who said one thing six months ago and says nearly its opposite now. Who knows what he'll say in another six months?

As disturbing as his obvious mental lapses might be, McCain's bizarre policy flip-flops make Daffy Duck look positively stolid in comparison, especially because they have come in many cases in which he has made himself a national reputation. Things like torture and campaign finance ethics.

And this is especially the case with immigration. The co-author of the Kennedy-McCain Immigration Act -- which, comparatively speaking, took a moderate approach to immigration reform -- McCain is now saying that he wouldn't even vote for it today, let alone co-author it.

I think we all remember a fellow who was relentlessly called a "flip-flopper" for much less egregious and far more ancient policy shifts than that. Indeed, one of the truisms about presidential politics until now has been that Senators, particularly those with long legislative records, could not be elected because of votes they've taken in the past which were done for horse trading or positioning or some other reflection of sausage making that isn't easily explained. (You see it in the current Democratic race.)

St. McCain is different. When he makes a policy shift or takes a U-Turn in his rhetoric, or misrepresents his own record, it's excused by his fanboys in the media as something he "had to do." Here's Nick Kristoff on the subject:

... his pride in “straight talk” may arise partly because he is an execrable actor. When he does try double-talk, he looks so guilty and uncomfortable that he convinces nobody.

It’s also striking that Barack Obama is leading a Democratic field in which he has been the candidate who is least-scripted and most willing to annoy primary voters, whether in speaking about Reagan’s impact on history or on the suffering of Palestinians.

All of this is puzzlingly mature on the part of the electorate. A common complaint about President Bush is that he walls himself off from alternative points of view, but the American public has the same management flaw: it normally fires politicians who tell them bad news.

It is true that Mr. McCain sometimes weaves and bobs. With the arrival of the primaries, he has moved to the right on social issues and pretended to be more conservative than he is. On Wednesday, for example, he retreated on his brave stand on torture by voting against a bill that would block the C.I.A. from using physical force in interrogations.

His most famous pander came in 2000, when, after earlier denouncing the Confederate flag as a “symbol of racism,” he embraced it as “a symbol of heritage.” To his credit, Mr. McCain later acknowledged, “I feared that if I answered honestly I could not win the South Carolina primary, so I chose to compromise my principles.”

In short, Mr. McCain truly has principles that he bends or breaks out of desperation and with distaste. That’s preferable to politicians who are congenital invertebrates.

That sentiment is quite common among the punditocrisy and the media fanboys. They have talked themselves into believing that McCain's flip-flops and panders are actually a sign of his integrity and strength because he does them so blatantly. Now that's teflon.

The main thing at play here is a pernicious, primal narrative that's been out there for decades in which liberals are tarred as being sissies who can't stand up for the country. Therefore, when they "flipflop" they do it out of weakness of will and unformed identity. They are always trying to "find themselves." Conservatives have no such issues. They are always on the side of God, Mother, Country (and Wall Street) and don't care who knows it. Unlike those nancy boys on the left, they aren't small, flaccid and flip-flopping --- they are large, hard and straight-up. That's the long standing (ahem) narrative of liberal and conservative politics in the modern era and McCain is the perfect hero of the tale.

This is where all that bonhomie on the old Straight Talk Express really pays off. He can literally say anything and the press will excuse it because they think he's their cynical, postmodern pal --- a Rorschach test for their own beliefs. When he gets "angry" at lobbyists or rightwing ministers he's telling the truth. When he cozies up to lobbyists and seeks the endorsement of rightwing ministers, it's because he *has* to, (and he really, really hates doing it.) John McCain's heart, you see, is always in the right place, and oddly enough, everyone believes it's in the same place as is their own.

I can't conceive of a greater advantage for a politician. He's almost a magical figure. He's an editorial from The Advocate, from just last week:

McCain's opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment is emblematic of his tempestuous relationship with the religious right. After the bruising 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, McCain labeled the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" and "corrupting influences on religion and politics." Sure, McCain spoke at Falwell's Liberty University in 2006, but he didn't pander.

At the end of the day, McCain loathes the religious right, and the feeling is mutual. A notoriously stubborn man, he will probably not feel the need to appease the anti-gay wing of his party, especially considering how outspoken its members have been in their denunciation of him. Evangelical leader James Dobson has already said he will not support McCain.

His allegedly stubborn belief in gay rights, you'll notice, is assumed. Sure, he went down to Liberty University and kissed Jerry Falwell's ring. But that wasn't a pander. And all the other anti-gay legislation he's supported he just did because he *had to.* He won't feel the need to appease the right wing of his party by throwing gays to the wolves. He said he'd take money from the Log Cabin Republicans and everything!

This is a serious danger for the Democrats. Everyone thinks this guy is secretly on their side. Jonathan Chait, one of the original McCain fanboys, wrote this recently:

Determining how McCain would act as president has thus become a highly sophisticated exercise in figuring out whom he's misleading and why. Nearly everyone can find something to like in McCain. Liberals can admire his progressive instincts and hope that he is dishonestly pandering to the right in order to get through the primary. Conservatives can believe he will follow whatever course his conservative advisers set out for him and will feel bound by whatever promises he has made to them...

The amazing thing about McCain is that his reputation for principled consistency has remained completely intact. It is his strongest cudgel against opponents. Wall Street Journal editorial page columnist Kimberley Strassel recently gushed that McCain is "no flip-flopper." "Like or dislike Mr. McCain's views," she added, "Americans know what they are." Then, in the very next paragraph, she wrote that McCain will now be "as pure as the New Hampshire snow on the two core issues of taxes and judges" and that "[t]he key difference between Mr. McCain in 2000 and 2008 is that he...appears intent on making amends" to conservatives.

It is a truly impressive skill McCain has--the ability to adopt new beliefs and convince his new allies that his conversion is genuine (or, at least, irreversible) while simultaneously strengthening their belief in the immutability of his principles.

It isn't a skill, it's a gift, bestowed upon McCain by a press corps which can't ever seem to do its job properly. Because of his POW history and his savvy manipulation of their hero worship, they have imputed the character of the young man of integrity who stood steadfastly by his fellow prisoners forty years ago to the older sleazy, self-serving, intellectually lazy politician he became.

He's the perfect man for the Republicans right now, a party which has devalued its brand in the service of neocon crazies and corrupt incompetents. He's one of them to the core, but because of his stirring life story, the media present him as sui generis, a different kind 'o Republican, their kind 'o Republican, a man who shares everyone's principles, even when they are diametrically opposed.

We'd better hope he dodders around so much that people think he's sick or something because that is a formidable advantage for any candidate. It means there's nothing he can say or do that disqualifies him on the merits.

Even on Iraq, you say? Well get this, from Chait again, in the same article from which I quoted above:

Even the ideological tendency McCain is most strongly identified with--neoconservative foreign policy--is, as John B. Judis explained in The New Republic, a relatively recent development: McCain originally opposed intervention in Bosnia and worried about a bloody ground campaign before the first Gulf war (see "Neo-McCain," October 16, 2006). McCain's advisers include not only neoconservatives but also the likes of Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft. It would hardly be unimaginable for McCain to revert to his old realism, especially if Iraq continues to fail at political reconciliation. He could easily be the president who ends the war.

See, he's just saying we might have to stay in Iraq for a thousand years because he *has* to. He factually finds the idea quite distasteful (just like me!) and because he's a stubborn man of principle he will end the war much sooner than anyone else.

Don't underestimate him. I know true blue liberals who really like this guy. Why wouldn't they? They read the liberal media.

Update: Classic Somerby

Does the press corps fawn to McCain? It’s a very important question. But if you watched this seven-minute segment, you saw very little real discussion of that critical question. The scribes’ minds wandered all about, as is the rule when such questions are asked. Until the very end of the segment, when Matthews explained the whole syndrome:

MATTHEWS: Let me explain why a lot of guys like McCain. He served his country in ways that none us cannot imagine serving this country. I think that gives him a moral edge over a lot of us and we show it.

Anyway, Jennifer Donahue, thank you very much for being on. Ryan Lizza, as always.

It’s all about Nam, Matthews said. McCain served there, and we multimillionaires didn’t. “That gives him a moral edge over of us,” Matthews said. And then, the key part of his statement: That gives him a moral edge—and we show it.

Shorter Matthews: We refused to serve during Vietnam. And because we feel so guilty about it, we refuse to serve today too.