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John McCain and the Luck of the (Scotch-)Irish

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Message David Michael Green

John McCain has to be the luckiest politician in human history.

He doesn’t have the presidency in his grasp yet, but he is within spitting distance, and that alone is an astonishing fact.

There is no way, for starters, that McCain should ever have won the Republican nomination he is about to. For all his horrible politics, he is perceived by the sundry Klingons and Borg who make up the voting ranks of his party as insufficiently insane to be a true-blue (true-red?) believer in the full creed of Jesus, money and violence (not necessarily in that order of importance, of course). After all, he hasn’t personally invaded a country yet (unless you count his blasting Vietnamese peasants into obliteration when he actually served in the military – which somehow doesn’t seem to matter to these folks except when Democrats don’t do it). And, since he politely wipes the blood off his chin when he eats his red meat, he is apparently too civilized to be president for those who think George W. Bush is one of history’s greats.

Then there’s the small matter of the turd of a campaign he ran. It takes something indeed to blow through tens of millions of bucks, wining and dining across the finest of accommodations, and then wind-up broke months before the first nominating contest. In the real world – and someone be sure to let me know if we ever somehow accidentally stumble into that – such criminal mismanagement might cause a few of us to take a close, gimlet-eyed look at what this would portend for the executive branch management skills of a, gulp, President McCain. ‘Member what happened last time we put a Great Delegator in the White House? And the time before that?

And, speaking of Ronald Reagan, there’s the small matter of, ahem, age, which makes McCain’s viability even more miraculous. Yes, it’s true that during his presidency the elderly St. Gipper actually introduced himself to one of his own children at a White House function. And also to members of his own cabinet on another occasion. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Should we really quibble over small quantities of senility in a president? I mean, it’s not like we’re talking about a powerful position or anything! It’s not like the dude has to make life-or-death decisions ever, right? Reagan was ‘genial’ and ‘avuncular’, while our vaunted national media was coopted and cowardly, so not too much was ever made out of the very scary fact that there wasn’t necessarily always a president present and presiding over this presidency. That certainly presents a poor presidential precedent, no?

You know, when Hillary regales us repeatedly with her harrowing adventures in Bosnia, or when she or Bill attempt to write those tales off as the one-time misfiring of an exhausted brain at a late-night stop on the campaign trail, they’re just doing what Clintons always do: Whatever it takes. They’re lying incessantly. This is right out of the Skinnerian behavior modification program you covered in Psych 101. Reward your eight year-old with a lollipop every time he steals something and you’re the only fool who’ll be surprised to be visiting your felonious progeny in jail ten years later. So why should the Clintons ever be expected to stop lying when it’s been so productive for them in the past? (But, um, this one was really a bit too much to swallow, even by Clintonian standards. I don’t care how late at night it is – it actually wasn’t, another, surprise!, lie, nor was it a single incident of her making this assertion, as she said it at least twice – this is something you remember, especially if you’re claiming to be the one who can be trusted when the phone rings at 3:00 AM. I’ve never actually been shot at, but given that I still clearly remember that time I stubbed my toe real bad as a tweener, I’m pretty sure I’d remember it if someone had taken a shot at me at any point during my lifetime.)

McCain, on the other hand, keeps mixing up that whole Sunni/Shiite thing, in a bad imitation of an even worse president. This is the guy betting all-in on his foreign policy bona fides, mind you. So, maybe he, like Billary, has lied so many times that he can’t even distinguish when he’s doing it anymore. But it may also be worse (better?) than that. What if McCain’s steel trap is showing some sieve-like qualities these days? A little rust around the edges, perhaps? I mean, think about it. If you’re gonna intentionally lie for personal political gain, it isn’t likely that you’d do it while having Joe "Connecticut’s Regret" Liarman standing over your shoulder whispering corrections into your ear in front of the cameras, is it? This episode strikes me as more (or less) than mere deceit, but rather evidence of McCain’s synapses off taking a bit of a cigarette break now and again.

And so, when you add it all up, it’s pretty astonishing that this is the guy who captured the Republican nomination. His politics are untrustworthy to the GOP faithful (and, boy, are they ever full of faith), he ran a near-suicidal campaign, he’s old, and he looks and acts the part. How did this guy ever emerge from the pack to win the nomination?

Damn good luck, I’d say. His best break was to have both Huckabee and Romney in the race, as well as Thompson, Tancredo and Brownback, for that matter. Any good regressive voter, intent on casting a ballot for all the usual sicknesses of the right, had so many wonderful options to choose from! And so they did, and they split their votes accordingly. This was essentially another example of what might be described as the Nader Effect from Florida 2000. Then there was the case of Rudy Giuliani, arguably McCain’s great rival for the womanizer/divorcee/slightly-less-Neanderthal wing of the Party (though shriveled stub might be a better description than wing), and clearly the odds-on favorite to win the nomination as late as last fall. Until he made the strategic blunder of the century. I hope he can get a refund on all the millions he dropped on campaign advisors. In any case, every campaign season seems to produce at least one candidate who manages to step all over their own genitals and toss away a golden opportunity, like Hart in 1988, or Gore in 2000, or Kerry in 2004. This campaign managed to produce three of them – Clinton, McCain and Giuliani – the latter somehow adopting the manifestly absurd strategy of laying low until Florida. Sort of like an NFL team sitting out the first half of the Super Bowl, you know? Nothing like coming roaring onto the field ready to rumble after halftime, when you’re already down 180-0.

McCain is, to be sure, a good campaigner (though a horrible speech giver). I’ve seen him do it live in New Hampshire, and I can report that he’s the best of the lot. But he also benefitted from some of the excellent luck described above, not to mention the fact that New Hampshire, where he is strong, was an early and prominent contest, and that Republicans go for those winner-take-all primaries. In truth, the stars aligned just right for him this year, even despite his own ardent attempts at bungling the campaign. Really, there is no logical reason for him to be standing where he is now.

But what is far more astonishing than winning the GOP nomination this year is that the thing is not completely worthless to possess. It takes my breath away – and I say this less as a progressive than as a political scientist – that any Republican could have even the remotest chance of winning in November, let alone be dead even in polled match-ups with both of the two Democrats, as McCain is now.

Think about it. Imagine you sat down with a blank piece of paper and tried to draw up an incumbent political party with as disastrous a record as could be imagined, short of a full-on physical implosion à la Berlin, 1945. A government with a record so reviled that 81 percent of Americans would complain that the country is on the wrong track. A party whose president just broke the record for lowest job approval rating ever. What would your blueprints for such a disaster include?

Would you have them take a record-setting surplus and turn it into a record-setting deficit, driving the national debt to a skyrocketing $9 trillion and fast climbing? Why not massively exacerbate the gap between rich and poor in the country through tax giveaways, leaving the middle class actually losing ground, while inflation rises and employment falls simultaneously? Good one! How ‘bout throwing on a credit meltdown, plummeting home prices, middle class foreclosures and evictions, and what looks like possibly the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, in order to seal the deal? Pretty good, eh? But wait, wait! Don’t forget petrol coming up on four bucks a gallon and headed toward seven, usurious interest rates on credit cards and a punitive new bankruptcy law awaiting people like a cold concrete slab as they plunge through a social safety net the very same folks have also carefully shredded! Now there’s an economic record you can write home about, Homer!

It would be unfair, though, in compiling this record, to neglect our good friend, Mr. National Security. So, let’s do this. We’ll emphatically warn the government of the worst attack on American soil headed our way, and have the president continue to throw horseshoes while remaining on vacation for a month. Let’s have him pick a National Security Adviser who didn’t even know what al Qaeda was. Have him go on and on about WMD when it suits his agenda in Iraq or Iran, and neither say nor do nearly anything as North Korea actually explodes nukes. Have him launch two Middle Eastern wars and completely bungle both of them. Have him alienate the world, including long-time historic allies. Have the administration embarrass the country by turning it into a gross human rights violator. Have them fail to catch the guy they blame for 9/11, and still not even be close to doing so, seven years later.

Now toss in heaping helpings of breathtaking arrogance, coupled with Stone Age levels of administrative competence, and good old-fashioned cronyism and corruption at a massive level, to boot. Throw in some serious environmental destruction, including exacerbation of a planetary-scale threat. Add to the mix Constitution-shredding that would make Joe McCarthy squeamish, and you’re getting close to having a pretty complete picture going. But, hey, why not allow a major city to be wiped out on their watch, too?

This is the Republican record that should be dragging McCain down like a pair of cement shoes the size of Himalayan massifs. What makes the story even more remarkable is that this is not even a case of a Barry Goldwater, for example, running as a reformer against the Old Guard of his own party nearly as much as against the other party. McCain has almost entirely embraced the GOP agenda. And he has – quite literally and physically – embraced the hated incumbent president who is the leader of his party. By any logical reckoning anywhere outside of the Bizarro parallel universe we seem to have inadvertently inhabited, McCain should have about as much chance of winning in 2008 as, well, Bush himself, were he able to run. The Republican Party should be hearing some statute-of-limitations-protected-child-molesting priest giving them last rites nowadays. These guys should be on life support, and about as likely to be revived as Ted Williams’ frozen head.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
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