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John McCain’s Cowardly Politics

[digg-reddit-me]Senator John McCain established his reputation as a “maverick” in a large part for the bold positions he staked out in the 2000 campaign on long-term problems affecting our nation. That was his trademarked, “Straight Talk.” He was one of the few politicians out there who would tell you how much trouble Social Security and Medicare were in. But under the Obama administration and to a lesser extent throughout his career, McCain has gained great credibility and popularity by taking very strong, responsible positions on long-term issues – while finding some minor excuse to oppose any attempts at reform that cost him politically.

But the Obama administration apparently still continues to hope to meet the McCain who was often invoked, though rarely seen, in the 2008 campaign – the “maverick” with an interest in “bipartisanship” who “puts country first.”*

McCain’s 11th Sunday morning talk show appearance this year occurred this Sunday, as he  appeared on This Week With George Stephanopoulos. Chris Cilizza of theWashington Post said he expected the interview to be “Must Watch TV” – and in fact, it was – as McCain demonstrated a phenomenon I call “the politics of irresponsible responsibility.”

In his interview with Stephanopoulos, McCain talked like a moderate on domestic policy issues – but managed to find a single or dual objection that allowed him to obstruct Obama’s agenda on every issue. The two-step would go like this: “Yes, [fill-in-the-blank] is a serious issue. I am in favor of reform. We need to do something right away. But Obama’s plan is missing [fill-in-another-blank] so I will fight to stop this effort at reform.”

  • On Guantanamo Bay, McCain agrees that the prison should be closed – and soon – but opposes the Obama administration’s attempts to do so because he doesn’t think they “have an overall policy developed.”
  • On the stimulus package, he does not deny that there was a need for government spending to stimulate the economy, but nevertheless opposed it because there was pork spending in it.
  • On cap and trade, he agrees that climate change is real and serious and the government must act – but opposes every action proposed because they don’t include support for nuclear energy (and beyond that, he presumes that the bill must contain large amounts of pork spending).
  • And then on health care, he supports reform – and knows we need it – but he opposes every reform on the table because of the public option.
  • He believes we need to “reform Medicare” to cut trillions in costs, but he demagogues Obama’s proposal to create a board that studies the effectiveness of treatments as a common-sense measure to restrain spending as “not quote death panels” exactly – but certainly something scary.

As George Stephanopoulos pointed out, John McCain – despite his rhetoric – has hewed more closely to partisan positions this year than at any point in his career – even after he called on his supporters to support Obama in his concession speech:

McCain had an explanation for his increasingly partisan record: “It’s been some of the issues.” Though he claims to see the need for reform and take the issues seriously, he’s not willing to pay the political cost of getting serious. In this McCain represents – perhaps better than any politician – the politics of irresponsible responsibility. Like another “respected,” “serious,” “moderate” Republican, Senator Chuck Grassley, McCain will work to get his ideas into legislation, but will demagogue and oppose even a bill he agrees with if he believes if will cost him support among the Republican base.  He talks about serious issues affecting our nation – and boldly states the problems in stark terms. But his boldness evaporates when he is asked to take an immediate position. Guantanamo should be closed, he agrees; but take a step towards doing so, and his long-term conviction does not restrain him from attacking what is being done to close it. Climate change is real and serious – on this he agrees with the Obama administration; but he will oppose any steps towards reform if they don’t include his pet ideas of nuclear energy and pork barrel spending. It’s a low cost way to kneecap reform while maintaining the mantle of a reformer.

This is not a courageous position. And it demonstrates the inadequacy of our current political conversation. When the most powerful people in the Republican Party blatantly lie about issues – and those who are “responsible” and “moderate” find any excuse to avoid dealing with the issues they say are essential, any attempts to deal with the systematic problems facing our nation will falter. And we face no shortage of problems – built up over decades of avoiding them – climate change; economic growth dependent on bubbles; our deteriorating health insurance and transportation  systems; our long-term deficit and the looming entitlement crisis; our economic imbalance with Japan and China – the list goes on.

A courageous politician, a maverick would take a stand in favor of responsible reform – and not seek to obstruct every effort as Senator McCain has done. His actions are not that of a maverick or reformer – but of a coward.

*On one set of issues, McCain has lived up to his reputation. Like most public officials are, McCain is treated as an expert on any policy matter before the Senate – but his interviews and various statements in the past demonstrate that McCain is no expert on foreign policy or domestic policy issues. The area where McCain has shown expertise is the military components of national security. On everything else, he seems a bit lost – jumping from one talking point to another – like a more seasoned version of Sarah Palin.

[Image by marcn licensed under Creative Commons.]

6 replies on “John McCain’s Cowardly Politics”

McCain said that Iraq would be a cakewalk. That’s some really useful military expertise.


And he was right. In terms of the efforts required to defeat Saddam’s military. He – like many neocons – didn’t really think about the aftermath of the war. After that, he was critical of the way the war was being run; and then supported the Surge. Though he always looked like an idiot claiming the Surge was solely or even mainly responsible for the decrease in violence – as it was only one of several factors…

Experts aren’t always right. They’re often wrong. But they are experts because of their knowledge of an interest in a field. McCain does have some expertise in the military, having spent much of his career focused on it.


That’s such a lame argument. I was only 11 years old when the first gulf war occurred, but I remembered enough about it to confidently predict that we could roll iraq’s military in 2003. That’s not some grand insight, it was pretty blatantly obvious. But either way, to pretend like the “aftermath” of the invasion was just some little detail that might be overlooked is ridiculous and indefensible. If your army sweeps into a country and destroys its government, it has two options afterwards. Either pack up right away and get out, or stay and occupy the country for some period of time. I don’t see how you can make a valid argument that either of those options doesn’t have serious implications for the military, or that they should have been considered independently of the invasion itself.


You’re bringing up points I didn’t make and don’t agree with. Of course, it was rather obvious we would destroy the Iraqi army; and of course, the aftermath was extremely important.

I’m not claiming McCain is some amazing prognosticator of military matters – but that he has some expertise in military matters.

After World War II and before Iraq and Afghanistan, the aftermath of war was generally considered to be a State Department activity. Under Clinton, the military engaged in nation-building, but only grudgingly – and it wasn’t until Petraus that it began to be seen as a legitimate and necessary activity.

Second – the US military wasn’t supposed to destroy the Iraqi gov’t. It was supposed to preserve the regular army, the police force, many of the ministries, and only get rid of the top Baathists. That was the plan, to the extent there was one. Obviously it didn’t go down like that.

You can disagree with McCain all you want – and I probably will disagree with you very little.

But it’s not controversial to call a man who spent his career in the military and then serving in Congress and Senate focusing on the military an “expert” on the military. He has some genuine knowledge and insight on this field. He might be wrong most of the time – and even on the implications of his insights. But it’s pretty ridiculous to claim he he’s not an “expert” because he didn’t take into account the aftermath of Iraq. Plenty of experts did – chief among them Donald Rumsfeld who has to be one of the nation’s foremost military experts – having served as Secretary of Defense twice, knowing a ridiculous amount, etc.

Fair enough. I guess my point is that since an expert can make such entirely bad decisions directly related to their field of expertise, it seems kind of counter-productive to use that expertise as a contrast to areas in which they can’t speak with any authority.

Put another way, I wouldn’t hold Mr. McCain’s thoughts on military matters in much higher regard than I’d hold his thoughts on economic policy. Although he can talk more confidently and consistently about war than he can about finance, he’s been really wrong on a lot of the big points in both areas.

And I do apologize for calling your argument lame on your own website. That was just plain rude of me.

@shawn –

I have no problem with you calling my argument “lame” – here or elsewhere.

And while I agree that McCain’s expertise needs to be qualified with rather large asterixes – the point I was trying to make – that got edited out as the piece got too long – was that McCain had compromised with Obama primarily in those areas where he was an “expert” – where he was in contact with a broad swath of the field and understood what people in that field were thinking. On most other matters, my impression is McCain just bullshits through. He doesn’t know what the opinion of the experts in the field are thinking and doesn’t have much knowledge himself. He knows talking points and he prefers to take lonely stands that make him look good but get nowhere…

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