The Day the Maverick Died
John McCain, we hardly know you anymore
Sarah Palin came to Boston yesterday with her Party-of-Hell-No Roadshow (my title, not hers). For over a year now she has been a headline-grabbing national distraction. We hate her, and we love her. She’s unpopular and yet a guilty pleasure. But the real shocker lately is this: Of the two members of the 2008 Republican Party ticket, she is the less disturbing sideshow.
That distinction goes to the debacle of the McCain Senate reelection bid. In fending off a primary challenge from former congressman J.D. Hayworth, a man that represents all that is wrong with the right wing of the GOP, John McCain has made those of us that wanted him to be president question our support.
Take this, for example: Last week, he, the self-proclaimed “original maverick,” de-mavericked himself, declaring “I never considered myself a maverick.” Right. As if there is any other word Americans remember from failed McCain campaign.
But that’s just part of a string of shifting positions and exercises in hypocritical word-eating in which McCain has engaged. There is also Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He has been unabashedly against repealing DADT. He has been hostile to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs for suggesting it. And, of course, only a few years earlier, he explained that any such suggestion from military leaders would be reason to reconsider the policy.
In November, McCain used the “cap-and-tax” talking point to denigrate environmental legislation being crafted in the Senate—a cause he once championed. The authors of the bill in progress were McCain best-bud Lindsey Graham and the man he really wanted for vice-president, Joe Lieberman. They were surely as shocked as any.
Dear John, what happened? We loved you for your supposed pragmatism, your realism. Now you have given in to the kind of political expediency you once decried. But more than that, you hated faux-orthodoxy. That was the foundation of the campaign narrative you offered to the nation less than two years ago. You told us to vote for you because you would never do what you are right now doing. Even Mitt Romney was more artful in his flip-flopping. Suddenly John Kerry’s waffling seems trivial.
Presidential and vice-presidential candidates who lose do have a penchant for self-destruction and reinvention. Al Gore gorged and became global warming’s biggest spokesperson. Joe Lieberman left the Democratic party. After 2004, John Edwards took up adultery. Some candidates talk of finding themselves; John McCain seems to have lost himself.
But the McCain saga is especially sad. It is sad for what it says of our country and of the perils of hyper-polarized partisanship. It is troubling for what it means for the Republican Party and its circular firing-squad primaries. And it is disheartening to see the elder statesman and exalted American hero John S. McCain reduced to a candidate as petty as any. Country first? Not so much.
Does all this make McCain a willing sell-out or an unfortunate victim? To be fair, the trend started, to a lesser degree, during the 2008 campaign as he played to the religious right, the base, and the factions for which he truly cared very little. By the end, the Obama campaign successfully painted him as a hapless old hero lurching from issue to issue hoping desperately to edge out a win using an all-but-the-kitchen sink strategy.
But these latest moves are worse. McCain has now consciously, decisively destroyed the narrative and persona he cultivated for years. Maybe he has little choice if he wants to win re-election, but now we are left with a John McCain that is neither true to the party nor true to himself.
And that is what makes imagining a country governed by a President McCain particularly troubling, almost scary. Is this a vindication of the Obama campaign? Were they right? Maybe so. Though I disagree with the Obama agenda, I—like many other Republican onlookers—cannot say I would feel comfortable with a McCain presidency.
As for the Senate seat, I do not wish defeat on him. The psychobabble of Hayworth is far worse. And I would sincerely hope the GOP will retain this, the seat of Barry Goldwater. Perhaps it is time for the term “maverick” to be put out to pasture, but John McCain deserves to be elected and remembered for the dignity and principle with which he once served. Even Sarah Palin says she agrees with that.
Mark A. Isaacson ’11 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.