John McCain’s Cowardly Politics


By Joe Campbell
August 25th, 2009

[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.]