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The Real McCain and the Cult of Authenticity

[posted on TPM Cafe April 20. Sorry for delay in posting here. This will be the first of several backlogged items to be cross-posted here, after fixing some technical problems and doing some spring cleaning.]

I can’t pass up the debate on the "real" John McCain. Jon Chait, who zigs when others zag, makes a pretty good case that John McCain can be considered a liberal or moderate, based on some of his actions in the 2002-2003 period, including having dinner with Tom Daschle and hinting that he might switch parties. Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias disagree in various subtle ways over at TAPPED, and I made the argument against McCain in that magazine last month. (I made The Prospect put the column on line before it came out, because I could feel the "Oh my gosh, we thought he was one of us, but he’s really a right-wing Republican" tide building.)

Now just to be clear, my position has been specifically that McCain’s overall record makes him, as I put it, "a worthy heir to Barry Goldwater’s Senate seat." And I used that analogy quite deliberately, not so much to emphasize McCain’s conservatism, but also to make the point that, compared to the nutjobs who besmirch the mostly honorable tradition of conservatism, Goldwater would seem fairly moderate. Bring Goldwater back in today’s Senate, and there would be at least 30 Republicans to his right. Goldwater was a supporter of gay rights, and long before there was McCain-Feingold, McCain’s single (and, I’ve come to think, dubious) achievement as a "moderate," there was a campaign finance reform bill known as Goldwater-Boren. Yesterday’s "extremism in defense of liberty" would be today’s "moderation in pursuit of justice."

(Although, one notable difference is that when another Republican president was sunk at 35% approval and mired in scandal, Goldwater went to the White House and told Nixon it was time to quit, while McCain asked voters in a straw poll to vote to give Bush a third term. If this was 1974, McCain would be trying to figure out how to hire Haldeman, Ehrlichman and G. Gordon Liddy for his own campaign.)

But having said that, I must admit that I’m really tired of all these discussions about whether McCain, or any politician, is "really" a moderate or a conservative or anything else. I don’t like the whole mode of analysis that assumes a politician has some "real" core of beliefs and then various positions he or she takes are either "real" or "political." That whole analysis is based on the cult of authenticity of which McCain, and to a lesser extent Bush, have been the greatest beneficiaries.

Politicians are aggregations of their instincts, values, and political circumstances and conditions, the pressures put on them and the niches that are available. (For example, there’s no niche in the Republican presidential primary field for an independent moderate or a pro-choice candidate, and so McCain is simply not going to be either of those things, whatever his inner core is). And that’s not totally inappropriate in a democracy, where people are elected to represent and serve the public. Consider that even on a deeply moral issue, capital punishment, many moderate Democratic politicians who probably were instinctively uncomfortable with the death penalty nonetheless found a way to live with it in the 80s and 90s. Obviously, people grow up with instincts and values and experiences that shape their general view of the world, but within those worldviews, there’s a lot of room for various policy positions in response to external pressures and circumstances and opportunities.

Any number of times, I’ve heard liberal groups complain of an elected official, "We thought he was one of us, we helped get him elected, then he got in and it turned out he was really just another corporate establishment tool..." But it’s not that the politician was "really" some other thing than he appeared to be, but that the group didn’t have enough power or use its power to keep him where he started. Both FDR and Bill Clinton famously told advocates who wanted him to do something "make me" do it -- that is, create the external conditions where that move would be possible.

But like it or not, "authenticity" is an important political tool in its own right. And voters are malleable as well, supporting a political candidate they view as genuine, even if the candidate’s views differ greatly from their own, as I discovered in New Hampshire in 2000 where some number of independent, socially liberal voters chose to vote for the hot McCain in the Republican primary over Bill Bradley in the Democratic. Likewise, pro-death penalty voters supported Tim Kaine in Virginia because they felt that his opposition was authentically rooted in his religious belief -- it actually strengthened his sense of authenticity. But as McCain demonstrates, authenticity is itself a pose, one he adopted and has now discarded.

McCain’s latest move is necessary, if he wants to be president, but it’s awfully daring. Live by the cult of authenticity, perish by the cult of authenticity. A pollster once told me that the way to destroy a political opponent is to get people wondering, "Who is this guy?" That insight was certainly borne out by the demolition of John Kerry, in which he collaborated in creating a sense that he didnt quite have areal core of beliefs. I assume that McCains gamble is that he has so strongly established the "straight-talk express" brand with the general electorate that he can perform the ritual obsequies of the Republican nominating process and still emerge with his reputation intact. But he cant. The odd period in McCains career that Chait focuses on created too many Republican activists who simply arent going to stomach his nomination, and he cant spend two years in his current mode and expect the independent moderate voters in New Hampshire and elsewhere to remember what they kind of liked about him for a period in 2000.

So the question isnt, "what would the "real" McCain be like as President. It is, what is McCain going to be like when his presidential hopes are put to rest and he serves out his 70s in the Senate. And the answer is still, a lot like Barry Goldwater, which in my book is still better than a lot like Bill Frist.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 21, 2006 | Permalink


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I just find it difficult to understand how anyone could have ever thought that a corrupt politician like John "Keating Five" McCain was ever "authentic."

Posted by: Tom Klem | Jun 10, 2006 11:19:22 PM