Thursday, May 22, 2008

Getting to Know Him

Get the straight talk on John McCain from a couple of books that explore the history of the senator from Arizona.

McCain’s favorite literary character is Hemingway’s romantic adventurer Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls. His film hero is Brando’s Emiliano Zapata, who walked out into the village plaza alone to meet certain death. McCain says he believes in the “beautiful fatalism” of noble lost causes, and he confounded reporters in 2000 by exhibiting apprehension after his New Hampshire win and relief after his South Carolina defeat. Such responses captivated many people. That McCain is probably still in there somewhere, if you dig deep enough. But the McCain we see publicly now is determined to do anything he has to do to win.

It’s probably unlikely that the larger national press will arrive at this interpretation by November. The image of the straight-talking maverick who bled in a cell while Baby Boomers indulged themselves is just too hard-wired into their systems. In addition, McCain, still adept at the seduction of journalists and the self-deprecating witticism, hides his rank ambition better than, say, Hillary Clinton does.

But here’s a revolutionary idea: run against McCain on the issues.

His rhetoric about Iran—which inevitably will be a factor in any solution—has been belligerent. He calls it a “rogue state” and has spoken often of “rogue-state rollback,” deliberately invoking a word favored by the hardest-line cold warriors; he recently said he never meant by the phrase “that we should go around and declare war.” On the Middle East, he said in late April that “people should understand that I will be Hamas’s worst nightmare.”

On health care, McCain’s plan is built around tax credits ($5,000 for families) that would cover less than half the cost of today’s average family plan and lead to high deductibles and much greater risk. His economic policies would, if enacted, combine Bush’s tax cuts with far more severe spending cuts in a way that could ultimately destabilize Social Security and Medicare, a goal fiscal conservatives have sought for decades; and he recently announced that he would nominate Supreme Court judges like John Roberts and Samuel Alito. So there’s plenty for the opposition to work with. Whether these matters will carry more weight than lapel pins or pastors or the ghosts of Hanoi may well be the question of this year’s campaign.

If the press coverage of Mr. McCain so far is any guide, we already know the answer.