Monday, August 27, 2018

The Long Shadow Of The 2000 Republican Primary

With the death of John McCain everyone seems to have an opinion, but few are doing much in the way of analysis. I am not much interested in "McCain good" and "McCain bad" takes. I've been thinking of why there has been so much public discussion of a six term Senator who was a fairly conventional conservative in his ideology. He was not a Senator like Henry Clay or Ted Kennedy, responsible for driving legislation forward. It's not just his military service, either since decorated vets like Daniel Inouye served in the Senate and were mourned at their passing, but not like this.

People who spend all their time on Twitter seem to forget that most people do not engage in politics on an ideological level. If you look at ever presidential election in my lifetime, the more charismatic candidate won every single time. Personalities and symbolism are often more important. I've met Sanders supporters who were not all that far to the left, for example. Those voters responded less to "Medicare for all" and more the anti-establishment message.

In 2000, John McCain was the most charismatic of the presidential candidates, but he did not even make it to the general election. The Republican establishment got fully behind George W Bush, including spreading racist rumors about McCain's adopted daughter from Bangladesh. A lot of McCain's charisma came from the enthusiasm of the media, who will always give the benefit of the doubt to someone who gives good copy. (This also explains Chris Christie.) If McCain, not Bush, had secured the nomination he would have won so handily against Gore that vote counting irregularities would not have been necessary in Florida.

Regardless of how real it was, McCain's aura of "straight talk" was popular with voters who had tired of the dissembling of Clinton and Gingrich, the two dominant figures of 1990s politics. It didn't matter that McCain was pretty much a garden-variety conservative, or that he was implicated in the Savings and Loan disaster as part of the Keating Five. He communicated more directly, something voters craved. That desire for "authenticity" also had a lot to do with the appeal of a different insurgent candidate: Donald Trump.

McCain's throttling at the hands of the Republican establishment in 2000 gave him the kind of goodwill that has led to the broad outpouring of emotion in the last few days. It has also obscured the more disturbing implications of that moment. For one, once McCain decided to run for president, he started caving to the Bush administration on its failed wars. The man who seemed to be the "maverick" willing to criticize members of his party started acting lobotomized. In 2008 he unleashed Sarah Palin, the John the Baptist of the Tea Party and Donald Trump, on the country.

While McCain did a monumentally important thing be refusing to vote for the repeal of the ACA, he mostly voted with the Trump administration. After all, he is a conventional conservative, and Trumpism is merely Reaganite conservatism with the white nationalism turned up to 11. When the president would commit some awful act, McCain would express "concern." This is the most he or other supposedly "maverick" Republicans like Sasse, Flake, and Corker ever seem to manage.

That reality hasn't been much represented in the current discourse after his death. I think this has to do with the long shadow of the 2000 election, and the belief that many Americans have that it is possible for our system to have a politics above politics. That, honestly, was a big part of Barack Obama's appeal in 2008. Many will deride this kind of politics as "centrist," but I am a believer in acknowledging political realities and working within them to win. If a left or progressive agenda is going to succeed, it needs to be wedded to the right symbolism and appeal to this longing for transcendence, no matter how unrealistic it is. In this country ideological appeals will only get you so far.

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