Monday, October 13, 2008

The twilight of John McCain

The fact that Bill Kristol’s advice to John McCain is being taken seriously is itself nothing short of comical.

When McCain secured the Republican nomination in the spring, many patriotic Americans sighed felt a sense of relief. While John McCain could not be counted on the bring balance to a Supreme Court heavily weighted with Republican nominees, he was a men of integrity and credibility as a national politician who would stand against the most partisan forces, and act in the broad national interest.

That is to say, he would be a departure from the last eight years. Eight years that have greatly damaged our nation. Economically we are deep in debt and our financial system is teetering on the brink of collapse. Militarily we are overstretched and hamstrung in our ability to respond to new threats. Internationally, we have lost much of our credibility in the world and our capacity to lead—at a time when centered leadership is badly needed and hard to find. And morally, our embrace of torture as a tool of national policy has undermined the national character that has been part of our strength in the world.

But it was John McCain himself, not some Washington cabal as Kristol suggests, who brought McCain’s candidacy to its current state of affairs. Despite his attack ads accusing Barack Obama of Unbridled Ambition, it is John McCain who cast his faith in the American people to the wind, and tried to remake himself in the mold of George W. Bush.

It is John McCain who cast aside his principled opposition to torture as a tool of public policy in an effort to reach out to the Party base.

It is John McCain who cast aside his opposition to tax cuts that benefited the rich and drained the national treasury in a time of war, to embrace new and deeper tax cuts in an effort to gain the affection of the Party base.

It was John McCain who reached out to evangelical leaders—not just evangelical voters—and muted his opposition to their contribution to the destruction of civil discourse in our society and in our politics.

It is John McCain who cast aside his long-time political advisors––who had help craft the McCain Brand that stood for integrity and straight talk that was critical to his success as a national candidate—and hired in their place his current team of Bush era and Rove-trained advisors, who have cut him off from the press and done much to destroy the essential character that—we thought—set John McCain apart from other candidates.

And finally, it is John McCain who failed to stand up to his new campaign team and select the centrist vice-presidential candidate of his choosing—Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge—and elevated in their stead a candidate who lacked any of the core attributes of experience and wisdom that he valued above all else.

Above all else but winning, it seemed.

John McCain is a man driven by his political instincts, and by a sense of decency in the public square. But he has proven in this campaign—despite the profound irony of the Country First slogan—that this time around, he was going to do what it takes to win.

Many supporters looked at the Palin nomination as the final moment when McCain himself could pivot toward the center. Palin would be sent out to placate the base, while McCain would return to the ground on which he is most comfortable. Openness. Candor. The politics of the center over the braying of the extremes.

But this is not the choice that John McCain made. Not this time. Instead, McCain lost his bearings. Perhaps it the roar of the supporters who turned out to see Sarah Palin. Perhaps it was the anger at being upstaged by young, stoic and unflappable Obama. But rather than veering to the center, McCain embraced a new populism and raged against the machine.

His campaign strategy changed week to week. Day to day. His rhetoric has become shrill and pandering, disconnected to any core message or program.

I’ll get Osama bin Laden… I know how to do it.

I will lower gasoline prices.

I know how to lower food prices.

I can fix this financial crisis. I know how to do it.

I know how to fix Wall Street.

This race is about Main Street vs. Wall Street.

There have been hints of old McCain from time to time, as he has shown discomfort with the quality of the campaign rhetoric, and has balked at elements of his newfound strategy. But as much as Bill Kristol would like to deflect the responsibility from his candidate, the failure of the McCain campaign rests firmly with the candidate.

Now, as the Barack Obama as un-American Terrorist Sympathizer strategy has failed, the McCain campaign is making a belated effort to return to the McCain Brand: John McCain as courageous and measured centrist, who will bring balance to the Democratic majorities in Congress and steady leadership to a the nation in its hour of need. Finally, John McCain will reach out to the large political center, where once he found succor and support, and which in the sunset of the Bush era has once again emerged as the key to electoral success.

But it is too late for that. John McCain chose personal ambition over principle and trust in the American people. He took his beloved brand and tossed it to the gutter. His integrity and credibility—all one has in politics—have been destroyed. Instead of centered and wise, he has proven to be fickle and petulant and impetuous.

We will never know which is the real John McCain. But he alone is responsible for where he finds himself today. All he has left is to consider his legacy.

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