Image by Wigwam Jones.
[digg-reddit-me]The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation.
Man are but gilded loam or painted clay.
John McCain has a reputation as an independent, a moderate and a maverick. This reputation is his greatest asset – far more important than his speaking ability or war record or anything else. It is the reason he was the Republican best positioned to keep the White House with the political tide clearly favoring the Democrats.
He built this reputation over many years by repeatedly taking stands against his party in the 1990s – on campaign finance reform, on tobacco legislation, and on pork spending – and in the early years of the Bush administration – on torture, on tax cuts, and on immigration reform – and by then staking his presidential campaign on the issue of Iraq against the political zeitgeist. But since his political near-death experience this past summer, McCain has either softened his opposition to the Republican Party line or embraced it, potentially destroying this reputation. The famous aphorism states: “Good will, like a good name, is got by many actions, and lost by one.”
So, there is a great deal at stake when the question is asked: Why did he change his positions?
For those who do not wish to give McCain the benefit of the doubt, the answer is obvious: he is pandering to win an election. For those who do wish to give McCain that benefit, the answer is less clear. Generally, the defenses of these changes in position range from denying there has been a change to explaining in various ways how the change shows consistency to a whole hodge-podge of other excuses.
As someone who was an admirer of Mr. McCain’s in 2000 and through the early years of the Bush administration; as someone who talked to and emailed all of my friends asking them to support McCain in his primary fight in 20001 ; as someone who believes that politicians are politicians even if their reputations are golden2 – I see three plausible and non-exclusive explanations for McCain’s change that are consistent with his appeal, his reputation, and his career.
1. McCain’s Last Chance for Glory
Coming into the 2008 race as the establishment candidate, McCain saw his last chance to become president slipping through his fingers, because of his unorthodoxy. He who had once described himself as the unrepentant champion of lost causes, decided to reconcile himself to the Republican base and reject these initial stands, these bases on which his reputation was built. This is the explanation that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have offered up:
“There was a time when some Republicans like John McCain agreed with me,” Obama said, of his calls to roll back Bush’s temporary tax cuts for the richest Americans instead of making those tax cuts permanent.
“There was a time when Senator McCain courageously defied the fiscal madness of massive tax cuts for the wealthy in the midst of a costly war,” Obama said. “That was before he started running for the Republican nomination and fell in line.”
2. Unprincipled Moderation
McCain was never truly a conservative in the Burkean sense or a man of strong principles, but merely a political moderate who has been constantly seeking the center ground, no matter how far the center shifts. During the Reagan years, McCain comfortably held the right-center. After Bill Clinton’s election, McCain operated in the left center. In 2000, with a mainly pragmatic liberal consensus, McCain campaigned as a moderate liberal. As Bush pulled the country right, so McCain went – but this time with a bit of a lag. McCain’s response to Bush’s radicalism is to accommodate it. Now, running in a Republican primary, McCain has adapted – and running for president in the general, he will again. His “principled stands” were merely accidents of history, or perhaps occasionally orchestrated stands to enhance his reputation.
McCain has always sought enemies in his career – and has organized all of his political positions by who he saw as the most serious enemy. The Soviet Union provided the first threat which ordered all of his political priorities, and so he entered Congress as a self-confessed ideologue, a “foot soldier” in the Reagan Revolution. He was a conservative Republican. With the fall of the U.S.S.R., he needed to find a new enemy. By the mid-1990s he settled on corruption in Washington. He backed campaign finance legislation to limit the influence of the lobbyists and big money contributors; he championed the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 to eliminate pork spending3 . Identifying another enemy he pushed to increase cigarette taxes to fund anti-smoking campaigns with the backing of the Clinton administration. When he launched his 2000 presidential campaign he said his goal was to “take our government back from the power brokers and special interests and return it to the people and the noble cause of freedom it was created to serve.” In a perfect encapsulation of his fervent yet ironic crusade, he compared his campaign to Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star of special interests (including the Religious Right and the Republican establishment.)
After September 11, McCain had found a new enemy that was greater than the corruption of the political process and he was willing to put aside all of his domestic agenda to focus on the new enemy. So, McCain’s changes in position reflect his changing ranking of enemies. He is willing to compromise all of his past positions because they are insignificant in the face of islamist extremism.
These are the three explanations that I have come up with consistent with McCain’s career, his character, and his politics. In the end, I think each explanation plays a role – but the dominant explanation seems to be the final one. It most fully explains McCain’s appeal, his reputation, and the timing of his changes. And frankly, it is the reason why I would be most wary of a McCain presidency now, at this moment in history.