In some recent magazine articles, I and certain of my colleagues have been accused of being soft on McCain, forgiving him his flips, his flops and his mostly conservative ideology. I do not plead guilty to this charge, because, over the years, the man’s imperfections have not escaped my keen eye. But, for the record, let’s recapitulate: McCain has either reversed himself or significantly amended his positions on immigration, tax cuts for the wealthy, campaign spending (as it applies to use of his wife’s corporate airplane) and, most recently, offshore drilling. In the more distant past, he has denounced then embraced certain ministers of medieval views and changed his mind about the Confederate flag, which flies by state sanction in South Carolina only, I suspect, to provide Republican candidates with a chance to choose tradition over common decency. There, I’ve said it all.
But here is the difference between McCain and Obama — and Obama had better pay attention. McCain is a known commodity. It’s not just that he’s been around a long time and staked out positions antithetical to those of his Republican base. It’s also — and more important — that we know his bottom line. As his North Vietnamese captors found out, there is only so far he will go, and then his pride or his sense of honor takes over. This — not just his candor and nonstop verbosity on the Straight Talk Express — is what commends him to so many journalists.
Obama might have a similar bottom line, core principles for which, in some sense, he is willing to die. If so, we don’t know what they are. Nothing so far in his life approaches McCain’s decision to refuse repatriation as a POW so as to deny his jailors a propaganda coup. In fact, there is scant evidence the Illinois senator takes positions that challenge his base or otherwise threaten him politically. That’s why his reversal on campaign financing and his transparently false justification of it matter more than similar acts by McCain.
What he’s saying is that it’s okay for John McCain to flip-flop on his positions because we know that when he does it, it’s because he spent all those years as a POW and therefore when he changes his position, it’s for a damn good reason. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that he’s now trying to suck up to the base of the party he could ignore when his political future didn’t hang in the balance. The POW reference makes Mr. McCain invulnerable to attack because to question that experience is to question his patriotism, and to hint that the press might be giving McCain a free ride because of it… well, we can’t have that, can we?
What’s really ironic is that the more they exploit Mr. McCain’s time in North Vietnam as a POW, the cheaper and less meaningful it becomes.