Watching John McCain since the Democratic convention has been unsettling. There have been some ups, but it has been mostly down as he’s discarded virtually every last scrap of his dignity and integrity.
There are those who’ll argue that he had never really had either, at least not in the quantities that he’s been credited with. While many will afford him a great deal of honor for suffering torture as a POW in Vietnam, some will deny even that, because Vietnam was a deeply unjust war. Others allow it, but diminish it, pointing out that his treatment improved after his captors realized that he, along with his fellow POWs might be more useful as bargaining chips. They’ll point to the circumstances of his divorce from his first wife, and how that overlapped with the courtship of his current wife. They’ll point to his role with the Keating 5. They’ll point to the fact that he continues to call his captors “gooks.”
I think that the truth is, as always, a bit more complicated. One of the foundations of the western cannon is an epic Greek poem about a soldier’s trials when returning home from war. That McCain’s first marriage didn’t survive is all too human a tragedy.
On the other hand, I think his role in championing normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam is a triumph of good character. Some will paint it a hypocritical, against his use of raciat slurs, but I think that just shows the depth of his character. I think it takes a lot to sit down and work with people despite old animosities. When McCain says he’s only speaking of his captors when he uses such an angry slur, I believe him, and I allow him that.
It’s much harder to find either sympathy or empathy for the course McCain has taken these last couple of months. His choice of Sarah Palin seemed, at first, to be cynical gender politics, but it quickly became clear that it was more than that.
Picking Sarah Palin aligned John McCain with the radical religious right. It aligned him with the same divisive politics that was used to initiate and prolong Bush’s disastrous term in office. It aligned him with the politics that sent Bush pursuing an immoderate agenda in a country that was almost evenly divided. It aligned him with a politics of fear.
In the time since, it has become increasingly clear how committed he’s become to this strategy. It started when McCain tried to defend Pailin’s inexperience with exaggerations and falsehoods. Then there were the whisper campaigns against Obama that looked suspiciously like the work of the people who used the same tactics against McCain to win the republican nomination for Bush in 2000. If there were any doubt about the source of those tactics, they were erased when Palin turned the whispers into a rallying cry and McCain followed suit soon after.
Since then John McCain’s campaign has accused Obama of running the most negative campaign in history, even as McCain’s campaign ads have been almost 100% negative, and his rallys have been mostly devoted to attacking Obama and trying to paint him a dangerous radical.
It has been clear that this strategy is doing nothing more than whipping the extreme right into a violent froth even as it drives swing voters, and even more moderate Republicans, to Obama.
So going in to the debates last night, McCain had nothing to loose but whatever scraps of his integrity remain. He could have distanced himself from the dangerous insinuations he and his supporters have been making about Obama, or even repudiated them.
Instead he again tried to paint Obama as a terrorist sympathizer by association with William Ayres. He tried to both pin the financial crisis on Obama, and implicate him in massive voter fraud by tying him to ACORN. It didn’t work. His attack was clumsy, but even if his execution had been flawless, it wouldn’t have mattered.
John McCain sacrificed the last of his honor of integrity last night, but what end did his sacrifice serve? McCain makes a big deal about self-sacrifice, and he talks a lot about putting country first. McCain didn’t put country first last night. In 2000, this country was almost evenly divided in its choice for president. In 2004, in the midst of war, with 9-11 fresh in our minds, the presidential election was still close. The 2008 election hasn’t been held yet, but its clear the country is leaning away from McCain, and even more strongly away from the extremism he’s been embracing.
Last night, John McCain put a narrow sliver of the country first. He put it ahead of his honor, he put it ahead of the rest of the country, he even put it ahead of the Republican party. Last night McCain sacrificed himself for the extremist wing of the Republican party. I don’t look forward to the repercussions.
I fear that McCain has stirred up such anger that someone will take a shot at our next president. I fear that the Democratic party will lack a moderating opposition in the coming decade. My only hope is that whatever effective opposition eventually reconstitutes itself from the Republican party, exiles the corruption and authoritarianism that’s taken hold, and renounces the cultural warfare that’s been used to provide cover for their advance. My hope is that the Democratic party is similarly cleansed.