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.)
... 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.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.
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.
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.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!
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.
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.
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.
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.