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November 28, 2006

John McCain, tyrant in waiting
Posted by Patrick at 12:44 PM * 44 comments

If you’re like a lot of my friends, you have the vague notion that John McCain would be a tolerable Republican president, certainly an improvement on the current nitwit. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Matt Welch lays out in the Los Angeles Times.

Liberals and conservatives alike fail to truly reflect his views, McCain writes, because “neither emphasizes the obligations of a free people to the nation.” His main governmental inspiration is Teddy Roosevelt, the “Eastern swell who became a man of the people,” whose great accomplishment was “to summon the American people to greatness.” In Roosevelt’s code, McCain writes approvingly, it was “absolutely required that every loyal citizen take risks for the country’s sake.” This is an essentially militaristic view of citizenship, one that explains many of McCain’s departures from partisan orthodoxy. Unlike traditional Republicans, he will gladly butt into the affairs of private industry if he perceives them to be undermining Americans’ faith in government; unlike Democrats, he thinks the executive branch generally needs more power, not less.

“Our greatness,” he wrote in Worth the Fighting For,” “depends upon our patriotism, and our patriotism is hardly encouraged when we cannot take pride in the highest public institutions.” So, because steroids might be damaging the faith of young baseball fans, drug testing becomes a “transcendent issue,” requiring threats of federal intervention unless pro sports leagues shape up. Hollywood’s voluntary movie-rating system? A “smoke screen to provide cover for immoral and unconscionable business practices.” Ultimate Fighting on Indian reservations? “Barbaric” and worthy of government pressure on cable TV companies. Negative political ads by citizen groups? They “do little to further beneficial debate and healthy political dialogue” and so must be banned for 60 days before an election if they mention a candidate by name.

If his issues line up with yours, and if you’re not overly concerned by an activist federal government, McCain can be a great and sympathetic ally. But chances are he will eventually see a grave national threat in what you consider harmless, or he’ll prescribe a remedy that you consider unconscionable.

McCain combines the dictatorial impulses of the current Republican president with an even greater eagerness to kill foreigners and an even more sweeping disdain for fundamental human rights. Far from the likeable “maverick” centrist he’s managed to charm the press into portraying him as, he’s a truly dangerous man. Liberals and libertarians alike need to start recognizing that right now.
Comments on John McCain, tyrant in waiting:
#1 ::: Laurence ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 12:52 PM:

This may not be relevant, but I was surprised to learn recently just how old McCain is. Can't remember the actual number now, but apparently if he became President in 2008, he'd be older than Reagan was in his first term.

#2 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 12:56 PM:

Do people still fall for McCain's faux maverick act? Speaking of tyrants, here is a bumper sticker I saw in Oakland yesterday on my way to the airport.

"Give Bush an inch and he thinks he's a ruler."

#3 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 12:56 PM:

I've been saying it for years, as you know. McCain is a dangerous man.

Fortunately, he's really old and has cancer. I don't think he'll be able to tolerate a campaign for President. He's 70 right now.

#4 ::: Richard Parker ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 01:00 PM:

Laurence, John McCain was born in 1936. If he runs for President in 2008, he'll be 72. Ronald Reagan was born in 1911, when he ran for President in 1980 he was 69.

#5 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 01:06 PM:

This raises a simple question: What happened to the Republican Party? If the choices before them are people like McCain or Romney, then they're in a truly dire condition.

#6 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 01:27 PM:

they're in a truly dire condition

I feel so sad for the GOP. Not.

#7 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 01:38 PM:

I have a process question: How has McCain been able to convince people that he is both a maverick and a centrist? Why does the media give him a pass, but not, say, John Kerry?

(This isn't some sort of rhetorical gesture. I'm genuinely puzzled by how he has cultivated this reputation.)

Based on his record, he votes conservatively and is someone who, despite making a lot of noise, ultimately hews to the party line. For example, He did take the stand that torture is bad. But he then brokered a deal which allows the Bush administration to continue to torture. This is a recurrent pattern in his career. But he still has that maverick reputation, despite enabling the administration status quo.

#8 ::: Laurence ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 01:50 PM:

Thanks, Richard @ #4

#9 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 02:12 PM:

JC, McCain has deliberately cultivated that straight-shooter, talk-from-the-hip image. Every so often he makes a little show of acting in opposition to the rest of the GOP, and since the press goes for show over substance (because researching substance takes work) he gets away with it.

Once his maverick image was an established part of his public persona, it became self-reinforcing because of the press's tendency to treat everything as part of a storyline. Since they think of him as a maverick, they notice things he does that are maverick-like, and anything that contradicts this image gets ignored.

#10 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 02:31 PM:

McCain lost all credibility with me when he started courting the Religious Right, even speaking at Bob Jones, after having railed against them in 2000.

#11 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 02:32 PM:

McCain is well-known as "trouble" in the gnu ntu and libertarian communities. His sponsorship of the "campaign finance reform" law is viewed as a major attack on the 1st amendment, and he's viewed as anti-gun as well.

Of course, most of them would still vote for him over any conceivable Democrat, given the Democrat's track record on those issues.

#12 ::: BigHank53 ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 02:44 PM:

Donald Wildmon's American Family Association gives him a 100% positive rating. What else do you need to know?

McCain has his reputation as a maverick because he's willing to stand up in front of TV cameras and act angry but still use small words. What more could CNN or Fox want? Checking to see that he follows through on those angry words is an awful lot like work.

#13 ::: kid bitzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 02:49 PM:

For decades, the leading lights of the mainstream press have been making two big mistakes:
1) thinking character-analysis is more important than policy-analysis, and
2) thinking that they are any good at character-analysis.

It's really a shame that running a large country is hard work. Policies that work well are really complex. They involve complicated things like, numbers. Sometimes the legislation involved has multiple clauses in it.

Our current crop of reporters and columnists are completely unable to cope with the job of understanding policy and legislation, much less conveying their understanding to an audience that has less time than they do.

So instead of actually looking at politicians' views on issues, looking at the legislation they have crafted and the policies they support, the reporters and columnists try to judge their characters.

It's a stupid methodology. But the really impressive thing about the media is how badly most of its members *implement* this really stupid methodology.

They couldn't judge politicians' character if it was written on their foreheads. They constantly fall for the same handful of stereotypes: guys with folksy accents are "authentic"; women in suits are "pushy"; anyone with an advanced degree is "out of touch"; and so on it goes. The last time that the mainstream media got anywhere near to correctly assessing someone's character was when they started thinking there might be something a little disingenuous about Dick Nixon. And they only noticed that after he'd been on the national stage for twenty years.

This combination of complete policy illiteracy and complete gullibility to the superficial indicators of character is matched outside of the media by only one figure I can think of: George Bush. You know, the one who could just tell that Putin is trustworthy.

No wonder the national press was the first to fall in love with him, and still treats him with kid gloves. He's one of their own.

But since he can't run for office again, the national press is off on its normal course of dim-witted distraction, ignoring McCain's actual policies and falling for the veneer of character.

They're never going to improve. The best we can hope for is that they'll continue to lose influence to the bloggers.

When I want to *know* something about government, I know where to turn: for health-care, see what Ezra Klein says; for constitutional issues, see Balkinspot; for foreign policy check Belgravia, Laura Rozen, etc.

The only question is whether the TV and newsprint lock on the nation's eyeballs will hold long enough to get their new hero elected in 2008. If it does, then, as PNH says, we're in a heap of trouble.

#14 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 02:53 PM:

Patrick, I totally agree. I am ashamed to say that in 1999 I thought McCain looked pretty good. I was totally wrong. His surrender to Bush on torture made it absolutely clear to me that the man has no principles, only positions and ambitions. (Yeah, I know. What took you so long...?)

I wonder if he has any idea how corrupt he has become.

#15 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 03:44 PM:

<meta>
I am principled.

You make unwise compromises.

He/She/It is corrupt.

</meta>

(And extending the debate in a trans-Atlantic direction, I wonder how many folks realize just how much worse than Tony Blair his likely successor, Gordon Brown, is going to be?)

Seriously, this isn't just an American problem (but yes, McCain is very dangerous indeed).

#16 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 03:46 PM:

"Pragmatic" is the new "corrupt."

#17 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 04:44 PM:

I have more to say about the failings of the US press, but for the moment, just one small observation: the fact that McCain is corrupt and unprincipled is the least dangerous thing about him. What is dangerous is that he clearly does have a consistent political philosophy, and that political philosophy is extremist, militaristic and dictatorial.

There are a lot of things worse than a corrupt politician who's willing to compromise for the sake of high office. The reason to oppose McCain isn't his character defects, but the policies he would implement if he had the power.

#18 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 04:49 PM:

he clearly does have a consistent political philosophy, and that political philosophy is extremist, militaristic and dictatorial.

Matt, I suddenly find myself thinking of Burt Lancaster's character in seven days in May.

#19 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 05:20 PM:

Serge #6: I share your absence of sadness.

#20 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 08:29 PM:

Matt, I agree that McCain's politics are very dangerous, but I think the way to counter his bid for the Presidency is to expose those positions, yes, but also to show how false that "straight talk express" image is. Hammer on torture; hammer on his embrace of Bush; make it clear that he is One of Them, and therefore just as much a liar and not to be trusted under any circumstances, war record notwithstanding.

#21 ::: Janine ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 09:01 PM:

I have consistently voted for McCain in the senate races since I reached voting age.

Sometime during the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, I came across a lovely picture of the senator with President Bush holding McCain's birthday cake. It was taken at Luke Air Force Base on 08/29/05. I'm not sure of the time, but I think it was late morning.

He lost my vote forever that day. I'm sorry it took so long.

#22 ::: Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 10:38 PM:

I have lost my ability to believe that the press is merely opportunistic and stupid. Stupidity of that breadth and depth cannot be genuine. Note that years later, when it no longer matters, individual reporters will allow as how they made a mistake, and they really ought to have known that there were no WMDs, or that Gore never said he'd invented the Internet, or whatever.

Real conspiracies are always less interesting and less dramatic than the ones we see in dramas. They're mostly unspoken, built out of common interests, and rather banal. Preepmtive back scratching, for the most part.

#23 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 11:03 PM:

I gave up on McCain when he campaigned for Bush in 2004. If he's stood neutral, OK, I could cut him some slack, but when the Swifities appeared, and he; sort of, wagged his finger at Bush, he lost a lot of points, because he knew it was all bullshit; not just the facts, but the "distance from the campaign," because of S. Carolina.

And he didn't call bullshit on the Bush campaign when they whined about MoveOn.org, and got the Kerry campaign to tell them to stop (which was the telling point to me, that Kerry was in trouble... knuckling under to appeals from a Rove managed campaign to "take the high road" is tactically stupid, no matter how morally right it might be).

If he had campaigned for Kerry, Bush would have lost. If he'd stood on the sidelines, Bush might have lost.

But he didn't. He got up and kissed him at the convention.

Then came the torture amendments, where he "stood up" to Bush by giving him more than he asked for.

McCain's brand of "bi-partisanship" has been worse than Norquist's date-rape. It's been a dose of GHB, because he's "working with the democrats" and that undermines the ability of the caucus to actually stand in opposition. I truly think he was more damaging than der Leibermouse.

And looking at the way he's voted, and who he's in bed with, he's Dick Cheney, and Bush, in a slicker package.

Evil is a good word for him.

#24 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 11:15 PM:

I think there came a time when he realized that the people in power were evil; and he paused there for a long moment, then said, "Oh well, if that's what it takes --"

#25 ::: William Lexner ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 01:58 AM:

John McCain is a great man. He's been towing the conservative line to get the nod in 08, but he's no neo-con.

Hate him if you like. Heinlein knows he's given us no reason to love him of late. But he's a great man, and would be the greatest president of the past 50 years.

But he'll never get the Republican nod because he will not bow down to the religious right. And liberals simply want to hate anyone who isn't green or damn near these days. (And with good reason.)

It was truly the darkest day in recent American politics, not when Bush beat Gore, but when Bush beat McCain a few months earlier.

#26 ::: Edward Oleander ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 05:24 AM:

William #25: You're right, he's no neo-con. He's worse. Greatest? Please... tell me why... this I've got to hear... Not get the '08 nod? Not likely. He's their Great White Hope. And any day Bush speaks is America's darkest political day.

#27 ::: Francis ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 05:31 AM:

Hate him if you like. Heinlein knows he's given us no reason to love him of late. But he's a great man, and would be the greatest president of the past 50 years.

This is great president in the same way that Hague was a great general? If he wins in 08, he'll probably be the greatest president in the 21st Century to date - but the bar there isn't high.

But he'll never get the Republican nod because he will not bow down to the religious right.

Except he has - see the speech at BJU for an example.

It was truly the darkest day in recent American politics, not when Bush beat Gore, but when Bush beat McCain a few months earlier.

Utter bollocks. Even the Shrub winning a second term even after screwing up the first quite so badly doesn't come close to the legalisation of torture or the response to Katrina.

#28 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 05:43 AM:

william,

He's been towing the conservative line to get the nod in 08, but he's no neo-con.

that's toeing. as in putting his toes on it.

#29 ::: A. J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 05:45 AM:

It would definitely offend my sense of dignity less to live in a country with a president who retains some principles, even if they're disgusting principles. (For argument's sake I'll hold that he does, just going from the quotes in the original post.)

Under such a charismatic, militaristic, opinionated guy, this country could be a Shakespearean tragedy, rather than low farce.

... I'm not sure that's a recommendation.

#30 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 06:52 AM:

Charlie @15, yes, Brown will be the guy who lost the next election for Labour, I'd say: he's been a moderately competent if meddlesome Chancellor with one good idea (freeing the Bank of England), but he'd be an awful PM.

The Tories' turnaround under Cameron has been amazing: they're no longer automatically viewed as the Nasty Bastards with the policies that must automatically be opposed because if they weren't evil the Tories wouldn't be backing them. The problem is that even if Cameron and his frontbenchers are sincere --- and let's grant them that even if it's probably wrong --- the party members and most of the parliamentarians are a mixture of nasty racist/sexist/everythingist Little Englander types, NIMBYists, and frankly unpleasant corporate trough feeders. And it's those groups who can pick a new party leader whenever they want.

Francis @27, Hague was a Tory leader with some skill in the debsting chamber but not enough anywhere else. *Haig* was the incompetent general.

#31 ::: Sean D. Schaffer ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 09:51 AM:

Oooh, man! I never realized how dangerous this man really is. Reading this almost sent chills down my spine. As a moderate-conservative, I'm blown away by just how fanatical this man seems to be insofar as his views on human liberties are concerned.

In a country that relishes its individual freedoms, why in the world does such a man rise to prominence and then spew forth such hateful things about fundamental tenets of our society?

This is some scary stuff, to be sure.

#32 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 10:31 AM:

His ass-licking support of Bush in the last election was enough to put me off McCain forever (not that I vote for Repugnants in these parts).

And meanwhile, in Russia.... I don't know how to link here to an individual blog posting elsewhere, but Making Light readers should check out the November 23 item on Russia in Anna Tambour's blog. Scary, revisited!

#33 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 01:05 PM:

#19 Fragano:

You may not be sad for the Republicans, but you might spare some sadness for the country. We could use two parties with some measure of sensible ideas and competent, decent people, rather than the party of moderate distastefulness vs the party of evil.

#34 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 01:07 PM:

There's plenty of sadness for the country.

#35 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 01:26 PM:

#13 kid bitzer:

I think you're substantially right about this. Politicians understand this and play up to it, which is why George W Bush is just a good old boy from Texas (who went to Yale and got an MBA at Harvard, and grew up in the absolute power-elite of the planet, on a first name basis with congressmen and sheiks, etc.), why his vocabulary has gone downmarket and his accent gotten thicker and homier over time, etc. If it served his purpose to sound like a rich man from a rich, powerful family with a first-rate education (which is what he really is), that is exactly what he'd sound like. But that would alienate his base, who would (correctly) recognize that in fact, he has nothing much in common with them.

Similarly, McCain is an outsider (who's spent the last 24 years in Congress), and who fights against corruption (like, say, the S&L crisis, in which he played a role which doesn't quite fit the corruption-fighting outsider image).

Reporters get caught up by confirmation bias (discarding the bits of data that disagree with the story that's commonly told about someone) partly because their readers are also caught up in it. And because most voters fall for it, both voters who like and who dislike a candidate.

#36 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 01:31 PM:

Dubya's accent has gotten thicker and hornier over time, albatross? Oh, you said 'homier'. I am relieved.

#38 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 06:01 PM:

Albatross #33: I entirely agree. What the Republicans have done to themselves is bad for the country. I would be happy if there were a conservative party with clear policies and principles. I doubt I'd support such a party, but it would be comprehensible.

#39 ::: John D. Berry ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 09:56 PM:

There are any number of reasons why I wouldn't want to see McCain as president of the United States, but it's intriguing to realize that most of the qualities and ideas cited by the LA Times editorial would have been considered virtues during the Roman republic.

Of course, we know where that ended up.

-- Karthago delenda est

#40 ::: Francis ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2006, 06:08 AM:

Francis @27, Hague was a Tory leader with some skill in the debsting chamber but not enough anywhere else. *Haig* was the incompetent general.

Doh! I really should proof-read myself more carefully.

it's intriguing to realize that most of the qualities and ideas cited by the LA Times editorial would have been considered virtues during the Roman republic.

Of course, we know where that ended up.

-- Karthago delenda est

I was thinking that something from Suetonius would be more applicable.

#41 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2006, 06:59 PM:

As a practical matter, I agree with Lizzy that showing that McCain is dishonest and corrupt will be useful. In fact, I claim it will be more than useful; it will be essential. If the majority of the public believes that McCain is uniquely honest and principled, then it will be very hard to defeat him. The press judges politicians by the reporters' opinions of the politicians' personalities, not by the politicians actual policies, so defeating McCain purely on the basis of his noxious policies would be very difficult. (And I keep circling around my promised rant about US political press coverage, but this is another part of it. The US press fetishizes the idea that they don't judge candidates at all, and one of the consequences of that fact is that the judgments it makes are subtextual and have are based on things that the reporter never explicitly states.)

My point isn't that real or perceived dishonesty has no practical effect. Mostly I'm just bemoaning what I view as an immature political culture in the US, where the most important thing about politicians, the policies they stand for and implement, plays such a small role in our political coverage and our elections.

#42 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2006, 07:15 PM:

Matt at 41, I agree with your last sentence. That's why I find myself saying, wearily, when someone accuses me of "hating" George Bush -- No, I do not hate George Bush. I despise and reject his policies.

Though in fact, I find nothing attractive in George Bush's personality. I would not want to have a beer with him. But I don't hate him. It's a waste of my emotional energy.

#43 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2006, 11:59 PM:

One thing I try to remind myself is that I don't actually have any idea what celebrities' personalities are like. I know what their manufactured images are like, because I watch them on TV, but what does that have to do with their personalities? There probably is some connection between those things, but it's also probably not a simple connection.

That's one of the reasons I find it so frustrating that the press makes such a big deal out of exploring politicians' personalities. They have no better way to know such a thing than I do.

#44 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2006, 04:07 PM:

Yes. Politicians' and movie stars' personalities are the product of a whole industry of spin-doctors, pollsters, focus-groups, press agents, etc.

Look at celebrity reporting for an understanding of why this is. People are probably evolved to enjoy gossip about powerful and important people. That same instinctive love to gossip about and speculate on personalities drives the coverage in People and The Enquirer, and also in Time and the New York Times.

This would likely work better for choosing leaders if the people we were choosing were people we ever saw or interacted with personally. But for choosing a president from among people who we'll never meet, and about whom we'll never know anything more than what we get from easily-spun media and carefully rehearsed campaign events, we're lost.

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