David Ignatius tries to resusitate the adjectives “maverick” and “outsider” for Sen. John McCain. You can almost hear the smacking of lips as Ignatius delivers the big sloppy kisses.
Sen. John McCain likes the moral high ground, and he takes palpable pleasure in delivering zingers to errant Russians, Iranians and Europeans, as he did at a conference here last weekend. But as the apparent front-runner in the 2008 presidential race, McCain is spending more of his time in the bog of American politics, and it’s no picnic.
McCain’s critics have accused him of playing a game of political Twister the past few months. When he accepted a speaking invitation from Jerry Falwell, the polarizing prince of the Christian right, liberals saw it as a betrayal of values. When he voted to make President Bush’s tax cuts permanent, despite his own past warnings about the country’s fiscal mess, budget balancers attacked him as a hypocrite.
When I asked McCain, in between his speeches to the Brussels Forum here, if the criticism bothered him, he answered quietly, “Oh, yeah.” He says liberals need to understand that he’s not a man of the left, or even the center. “I haven’t changed. My record is the same on all issues, which is that of a conservative Republican. Not a liberal Republican, not a moderate Republican.” But in the next breath, he lists all the positions he has taken that have made him the darling of centrist Republicans and Democrats, from torture to ethics reform to climate change.
McCain is a walking embodiment of the Catch-22 of presidential politics. To get the nomination, a candidate must appeal to his party’s activist wing. But even as he buffs his credentials with the base, the candidate inevitably tarnishes his image with the center. A successful campaign almost requires some fibbing — the candidate is either less extreme than he’s telling his party’s base, or more extreme than he’s telling the general public. The trick is not to get caught — not to be too obvious in the tactical compromises that are necessary in the marathon race of a presidential campaign.
Part of McCain’s appeal is that he seems to straddle such partisan political calculations. He’s the victim of torture who opposes torture, the man caught in the “Keating Five” ethics scandal who insists on reform, the critic of Iraq policy who insists that America must win the war, the conservative who is beloved by moderates. A McCain candidacy, if he makes the formal decision next year to run, will be rooted in his image as a man of principle. But it will also be something of a balancing act — one that the candidate himself is likely to find uncomfortable.
So John McCain is too much of a straight shooter to be a panderer, eh? He has all these inner struggles with his conscience as a man of his word but who has to balance his views to attract all sides of his party. Quick, cue the “Hamlet” overture. When the Democrats had the nerve to put up a candidate — John Kerry — who showed that he actually thought about the things that he thinks about, the oppo research and Rovian harpies labelled him as a “flip-flopper.”
If McCain is, as Ignatius brands him, the GOP front-runner, it’s going to be interesting to see what the other candidates — Frist, Allen, and other denizens of the far-right — do to wedge themselves in as the true heir to the throne. McCain’s patoot-smooching to Bush during the 2004 campaign (“Can I get a hug?”) was both nauseating and telling. Yes, you support your party’s candidate in the election, but you also don’t do it in a manner that would make an Irish setter look calm in comparison. How that is supposed to set you up as the candidate to bring in the moderate and progressive side of your party is beyond me, and as for attracting the vast number of independents out there who don’t see themselves as being in either party, well….
What boggles the mind is the idea that the GOP thinks the country is ready for another right-wing radical president. It isn’t just Bush that is polling in the mid-30’s, it’s the whole sorry lot of them. But if they think it’s going to work for them, who am I to tell them to avoid the icebergs?