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February 06, 2008

Thoughts On McCain

Updated. I just kept adding stuff.

* A lot of conservatives and pundits are calling for McCain to mend fences with the conservative base. There is speculation he'll do so at CPAC. I can't imagine he'll do so.

As someone wrote at the Corner, "Romney is trying to join us. McCain wants us to join him." Having mostly won without conceding an inch to conservatives, and being on the fast track to the nomination, I don't see why on earth Mr. Straight Talk would suddenly tack to the right now. The rule is tack to the right in the primaries, tack to the center once the nomination is secured to better position oneself for the general. The John McCain we're seeing now is likely the most conservative version of him we're ever likely to see.

I think some conservatives are in the bargaining phase of the five steps of grief. The trouble is, we have nothing much to bargain with. Even when we were at our strongest bargaining position, McCain offered us nothing at all.

* On the other hand, he does actually need conservative votes in the general. Everyone says that most conservatives will, in the end, pull the lever for McCain. The war is simply too important. And he is somewhat less liberal than Hillary and Obama.

It's quite true that most of us will vote for McCain. But 51% is "most," and it seems unlikely he could win an election with so much of the base sitting out. How much of the base will he get back? Two thirds? Three quarters? Even assuming three quarters or perhaps 85%, obviously he won't be turning out the base in record numbers like Bush managed in 2004. He's counting on making up for that shortfall with a lot of independents swinging his way.

The trouble with that is there really aren't that many "independent" voters out there. As focus-groupers like Frank Luntz tell us every four years, most of the people claiming to be "independent" are in fact fairly strong leaners towards one party or the other. They like styling themselves as "independents," but they are actually fairly reliable votes for the more-conservative or more-liberal candidate in every election.

Thus the fact is that McCain has just about as many "independents" likely to vote for him as, say, the hardcore conservative Christianist George W. Bush.

He'll pick up more of this vote than Bush did. But the number of true independents, those who really are equally torn between each basic political outlook and who really are equally likely to pull the lever for the R or the D, are a very small segment of the electorate. Grabbing 1 or 2% more votes from this cohort doesn't nearly make up for the 5 or 10% of lost conservative votes.

The fact is that McCain's real path to victory lies with white men who are uncomfortable with Hillary's explicitly sexual politics and Barack Obama's quieter, but still real, racial appeals.

So Mr. Moderate will, in the end, rely upon, if not actively exploit, the sort of racial and sexual discomforts that all his liberal buddies will be aghast at.


* Republicans have generally profited from character and likability issues in the general election. Liberals forever blame the failure of their message on the fact that their messengers are flawed and can't connect with voters as well.

I don't think the failure of their message can be blamed on that. But it does seem that voters respond to perceived good character and likability perhaps more than they should. Many voters seem to like Huckabee, and almost everyone is impressed by McCain's biography and iron resolve as a POW.

The trouble is that many voters seem to have mistaken these qualities for actual fidelity to conservative principles. I can't help but thinking that Huckabee benefits from the idea, "Gee, he seems like an affable, everyday normal guy. As I myself am a somewhat affable, everyday normal guy, it's natural that he must share my politics."

And McCain has benefited, I think, from the similar notion, "He's a good man. As such, he must understand that conservative principles are the best for the nation."

Both thoughts are, of course, wrong.

* John McCain views politics as to be guided entirely by his conscience. He's a smart man; he knows the facts; he has his experience to guide him. Therefore, he believes, the public delegates to him almost all decision-making regarding policy choices.

I don't view it that way at all. And you probably don't, either. I look at it more like a hiring process. I know how I want the job done. I want a job applicant who will tell me "Yes sir, I will execute your preferences to the best of my ability," rather than a guy who comes in saying, "You hire me, I'll do the job the way I think is best. I don't really care what opinions you might have about the direction you want to take this company; I have my own ideas and I'm going to put those ideas into practice upon being hired. If you don't like it, tough shit."

McCain's perception of the job of politician is one of a Philosopher King especially enlightened and therefore especially empowered to make decisions on others' behalves, whether they understand he's doing the best thing for them or not.

Most of us on the other hand view the job of the politician as a provisional lending of political power with the understanding that the job will done as we desire, not necessarily how the politician desires. In our view, we are just as competent to make basic policy decisions as John McCain, if not more so, and thus neither need nor want John McCain to do our thinking for us. In fact, we think we can do John McCain's thinking for him.

That's why I was never bothered by Mitt Romney's, or Rudy Giuliani's, flip-flops, I think. They understood, better than McCain, that in an enlightened democracy, the People do not have need of a wise ruler to make decisions for them. Where many saw pandering by Romney and Giuliani, I saw the notion that The voter is always right, or, if not always, at least almost always right.

McCain doesn't seem to share that notion. At all.

* On that last point: McCain says he'd rather lose an election than a war.

However, he would rather lose a war than a political argument.

He's had a longstanding feud with conservatives over numerous issues. Rather than doing all that is necessary to win the nomination and the election, and thus the war, too, he has continued to insist he's right and he's not changing.

He didn't need to claim some political conversion on these points. He didn't need to claim he'd seen the light and truly agreed with us. (Though he did, of course, dishonestly imply that, especially on immigration.)

He needed only to promise conservatives that despite his disagreements with us, he would accept our decisions on these matters and no longer push forward with, for example, his amnesty plan.

He has refused to do so, except by dishonest insinuation and evasive question-dodging.

Many voters who feel the war is just about the only thing that matters blame us conservatives for not eating our pride, and disposing of our other political hopes, and getting behind McCain.

To them I ask: Why are we millions expected to do what one man, John McCain, steadfastly refuses to do? If he's unwilling to give a little in the interests of having the best chances of winning the War in Iraq and War on Terror, how is it our fault for being as stubborn?

We are millions. He's one guy.

But he's the Philosopher King, I guess.

People call for us to get over our anger over the past. Fair enough. How about in exchange McCain makes some promises about the future?

But he won't. We're expected to compromise on everything for the sake of the war, whereas one egotistical man will not compromise one iota.

* Another trope is floated by McCain backers: Conservatives are being irrational about McCain because he's insulted us. We are churlish and need to "grow up" and not be so sensitive about such things.

The problem here is that we're not upset that he's insulted us repeatedly and gone out of his way to thumb us in our collective eye. The problem is that an insult indicates profound disrespect -- at least if you disagree apologetically, it shows you feel you still need the people you're disagreeing with. McCain, by his obvious hatred of conservatives, believes he doesn't need us -- except to dutifully pull the lever for him, then go away for four years -- and thus behaves in precisely that manner.

It's not that he insulted us, exactly. It's that by insulting us he broadcast his disinclination to even listen to us. He scorns us; why would we have any sway with him? One doesn't take the counsel of those one profoundly disrespects.

Furthermore, McCain was once a conservative, but has since at least 2000 been attempting to build not a stronger Republican Party but a Party of McCain and McCainism within the Republican Party itself.

And towards that project, he has increased his own political standing by deliberately thwarting Republicans and conservatives. This is the key to his popularity -- he defies us and fights with us and defeats us, not just in quiet ways, but conspicuously. Because McCainism is at heart anti-conservative.

The wellspring of McCain's popularity is his dislike of conservatives. As President, he will go to this well whenever he's in trouble politically. He will not merely beat up on us rhetorically -- that's insulting, but not terribly important -- but will contrive reasons to embrace the liberal agenda in order to show his true constituency, moderates and the media, that he's no one's man but his own.

I don't believe all of McCain's anti-conservative moves are on principle. I think many of them, and the conspicuous grandstanding that goes with them, are political calculations -- much of the public doesn't like conservatives, therefore picking a public fight with conservatives increases his standing with a good fraction of the public.

As this tactic -- a sort of triangulation, or triangulation of fire against conservatives -- has been the key to John McCain's success since 2000, I expect him to continue employing it.

Conservatives exist to him for two reasons -- to pull the lever for him meekly and without any say in his decision making, and to beat up upon for the delight of his true constituency.

I'm not being petty by noting the insults and constant thwarting of our political agenda. I just know that one can see the future in the past. McCain's conservative-bashing, conservative-thwarting strategy has almost delivered him the nomination of the Republican Party itself, for God's sakes; of course this would continue, or even increase, during McCain's presidency.

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posted by Ace at 03:31 PM

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