September 3, 2008

John McCain: Change We Can See (Blind "Belief" Unnecessary)

Hatched by Dafydd

A McCainiac commenter to Big Lizards noted -- well, crowed is the better word -- that I had long opposed John S. McCain's nomination and had supported Mitt Romney; but now, Mr. Commenter notes, I won't even support Romney for vice president. Isn't that hypocritical?

The exact charge is easily answered: If Romney had won the nomination, his best choice for running mate wouldn't be John McCain, either. The running mate must complement the presidential nominee... and Romney's fitness to be president doesn't translate into rightness as vice president. (I have always thought stupid the traditional Republican tactic of the winning candidate picking his bitterest rival as his vice president; that's as bone-headed as, say, John Adams picking Thomas Jefferson.)

But the snarky comment did start me examining why I consistently disliked McCain back in 2004-2006, and off and on through 2007 -- but actually started liking him as 2008 rolled along. Am I simply rationalizing, since he won the nomination? If so, I'm in good company; an awful lot of people have made the same mental journey anent McCain... some from considerably farther away.

But as I pored through old Big Lizards posts, I realized with pleasant surprise that I am not the one who moved: The mover here has been John McCain, who quite simply became a better Republican and better candidate. He evolved; he grew in office (actually, in campaigning) -- but in the proper sense of that term.

Let me tell you how; but first, it's critical we discriminate between two different kinds of "changing one's mind":

  • A flip-flop is a policy reversal made solely for political reasons, whether macro-politics (an election or fund-raising) or micro-politics (to align yourself with you boss, your spouse, your friends).

    For example, Barack H. Obama violently opposed the very idea of the Iraq war in 2002. But then in 2003, when we appeared to be winning and sentiment for the war ran high among voters, Obama argued that we should stay and finish the job; to leave prematurely would be catastrophic.

    However, the next year, we appeared to be losing -- and the public turned hard against the war... and Obama returned to his 2002 position that the war was a horrible mistake from the beginning, and that we should just pull out immediately, and damn the consequences.

    That is a perfect example of a flip-flop.

  • A policy evolution generally means a reversal made because of a bona-fide shift in how one thinks about the issue.

    You may change your mind because the fact-base your previous position relied upon has shifted (to quote John Maynard Keynes, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"); or because somebody has made a new and persuasive argument; or because you have simply thought it through a second (or thirtieth) time and surprised yourself with an epiphany.

    For example, a man might fight for socialism in his callow youth, then undergo an economic "road to Damascus" moment and turn more conservative and capitalist in his maturity. This isn't a flip-flop, it's wising up.

The point is that changing policy is not ipso facto evidence of hypocrisy, flip-floppery, or shallowness; it depends how you changed -- and why. With that bit of pedantry out of the way, let's MoveOn.

The commenter's point begins with a small nugget of truth... but then he goes so far overboard that this tiny kernal of validity is buried under an avalanche of nonsense.

I did dislike, even despise John McCain -- back in 2004-2006; but not "around Feb/March 2008," as the commenter suggested. I felt that way because at the time, McCain was doing fairly despicable things.

First, he held a number of policy positions that could only be described as frankly Democratic, in the worst sense: The BCRA was fresh in our minds; then there was the Gang of 14, which prevented good judicial picks from being voted upon by preserving the "judicial filibuster." He opposed drilling anywhere, anytime, for any reason. And of course, he fought against the Bush tax cuts with ever fiber of his being, not only after they were proposed but even before Bush was elected, during the 2000 campaign.

Since then, however, McCain has reversed himself on several of these issues; this is why I made such a fuss above about the distinction between flip-floppery and policy evolution: I believe each of McCain's reversals is sincere, an actual evolution of his thinking; for in each case, subsequent experience has proven McCain's earlier position wrong.

  • He now sees the need for more judicial conservatives on the bench, likely because he watched as Justice Anthony Kennedy played "swing vote," taking the Supreme Court into uncharted waters, where there be dragons.
  • He now supports drilling everywhere except ANWR -- now that gasoline prices are skyrocketing and ruining the American economy. (And I have high hopes that Sarah "Barracuda" might lead McCain to the light on drilling in a tiny flyspeck of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge... the part of it that was specifically set aside for drilling when ANWR was first created.)
  • And he has "come to Jesus" on tax cuts, realizing that funding more and more government programs is not as important as letting the people who created the wealth, at all income levels, keep more and more of their own money.

(I believe he was also right on a number of issues where others were wrong, including immigration, but notably the Iraq war -- specifically the counterinsurgency we implemented on McCain's insistence; I didn't really understand McCain's position, its similarity to my "whack a mole, plug the hole" strategy, until late 2007.)

But my objection wasn't just to policy differences; after all, Rudy Giuliani's policies differ more from mine than do McCain's, and I never despised Giuliani. My real objection to the earlier McCain was his character.

McCain spent most of his time bashing George W. Bush, even to the point where I believed in 2004 that the senator was trying to elect John F. Kerry (D-rich widows, 95%); he certainly went to the mattresses defending Kerry from the charges of the Swift-Boat Vets -- and sliming the SBVT in the process. This was below and beyond what was needed to stand up for vets; after all, by definition, the Swift Boat Vets were also Vietnam vets... just like McCain and Kerry. And brutally bashing the president during his reelection campaign was completely over the top; I am as certain today as I was then that it was entirely personal (see below, the South Carolina incident of 2000).

In fact, in general, the McCain of 2004-2006 slimed anybody who disagreed with him. Back then, his hysterical temper was in full display (again, more on that later), and so forth. I considered him -- at that time -- burning with presidential fever but unfit for the office.

In August of 2006, I summed up what I disliked about McCain and why he differed from Giuliani, who had similar political positions. About McCain, I wrote:

  • The man is untrustworthy;
  • He stabs friends in the back;
  • He has a volatile, at times uncontrollable temper;
  • He holds a grudge longer than Richard Nixon did;
  • And he believes the absolute, bloody worst about anyone who disagrees with him.

I concluded the piece thus:

The primary "values and philosophies" demanded [by Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics] are not found in either man's position on the issues Bevan examines, but rather in both men's characters in a time so fraught with peril. Everything I know, I learned from Zorro, including this: "No man can govern others until he has first learned to govern himself." John McCain cannot even govern himself; I will not trust him with my country.

However, as the facts change, I change my opinion; and McCain evidently took to heart much of the criticism that was launched against him by fellow conservatives. It took a while, but he slowly reformed the worst elements of his character... and that was probably the hardest reformation he has ever undertaken.

As he did, he began to win me over. I didn't really notice it at first. I always admired his feistiness and refusal to quit and accept defeat; but it only gradually dawned on me that the gaps between McCain doing something stupid and offensive were getting longer and longer.

John McCain had one more serious lapse in late January, 2008; I took him to task (in harsh terms) here:

If this report is true -- and it certainly seems to be -- then John McCain has done a despicable thing... and has made it clearer than ever that in his heart, he is a Democrat -- and in the Clintonian mold:

John McCain accused Mitt Romney of wanting to withdraw troops from Iraq, drawing immediate protest from his Republican presidential rival who said: "That's simply wrong and it's dishonest, and he should apologize...."

I was quite angry about the false accusation McCain leveled at Romney; it was uncalled for, and it appeared to be a flat lie. But what bothered me most was that I had begun to admire McCain -- and he suddenly reverted to his older, colder self. I concluded with temper-driven intemperance:

I can draw only two possible conclusions from this shameless attack on Mitt Romney by John McCain:

  1. Either Mr. "Straight Talk" has demonstrated that he will (if he gets desperate enough) stoop to fabricating accusations against his enemies... that is, to flatly lying about them;
  2. Or else, that John McCain rejects the Petraeus plan as a betrayal and believes there should never be any drawdown in Iraq; in addition, he doesn't want even internal, secret milestones to gauge our progress there... McCain will simply know, via mystic gnosis, how it's going and what to do next.

That is, John McCain wants us to maintain our current level of 160,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely, no matter what the facts on the ground may be, and no matter what the commanding generals in the field would prefer. I can only conclude that under a John McCain presidency, Navy Captain John "Full Throttle" McCain will simply overrule his own generals and admirals based on his gut feeling and micromanage the war, as Lyndon Johnson did.

Conclusion number one means that McCain is fundamentally dishonest. Number two means that, despite his military leadership being the only real selling point he has ever had, he would in fact be a catastrophic Commander in Chief.

I wonder which conclusion is correct?

Neither, as it happens; there was a third alternative I should have considered: Back when "Hotspur" McCain was unable to govern his temper, he made many false accusations; but he didn't realize they were false, because his biliousness got the better of him and he spoke without thinking.

For an earlier example, back in 2000, some nitwit launched a vicious, dirty, push-poll attack on McCain in South Carolina, spreading the lies that McCain had "fathered a black child," that he was gay (yes, I know they contradict), that Cindy McCain was a doper, and so forth. McCain leapt to the conclusion that Bush was behind it, despite the complete lack of any evidence pointing that way, the lack of previous instances where Bush had done any such thing, and Bush's repeated denials. It was years before McCain finally let his rage at that supposed attack subside.

Thus, it is entirely possible that McCain heard something Romney said -- and leapt to the conclusion that Romney was calling for withdrawal. All Romney had said was that he hoped the White House and the Iraqis had their own secret timetables, so they could tell whether the counterinsurgency was working; McCain seems to have misheard or misunderstood this to mean Romney was demanding public timetables for withdrawal. Thus, John McCain wasn't lying... he was just grossly negligent and evinced what came perilously close to a reckless disregard for the truth.

But just a few days later, I realized it wasn't a reversion; it was a one-time lapse... and in fact, it was the last such; ever since January, McCain has not allowed his Vesuvian rage to leap up his throat and throttle his brain. At the end of January, even before Tsunami Tuesday (on February 5th), while Romney was still a viable candidate (I voted for him in California), I wrote the following, calling McCain's charisma his "greatest asset":

I believe Mitt Romney would make better decisions as president; but John McCain would be much better at explaining those decisions to the American people. Communicating with ordinary Americans has, of course, been the bête noire of the current president, and we see how vital that skill is....

So I take heart in the fact that, even though I still think Mitt Romney would be the better policy maker in the White House, John McCain is considerably more likely to keep the property in Republican hands.

And who knows? I strongly suspect his ability to connect with, and therefore communicate with the American people will actually make McCain more effective at selling the 80% of his policies that actually match those of mainstream Republican conservatives -- than a candidate who is with them 100% of the time, but just can't move people the way McCain can. In other words, McCain will probably end up being a more effective conservative Republican president than any of the current flock of actual conservative Republicans.

It's a sobering thought, but one that is hard to deny. Such is the power of the greatest asset.

Again, Mitt Romney was still a viable rival to McCain at this point; it wasn't until two days after Tsunami Tuesday that Romney suspended his campaign. My post then hardly fits the bill of someone who thought "that McCain would be a disaster and Romney would be a triumphant march to the WH," as Mr. Commenter wrote.

The commenter's memory of the contretemps is largely irrelevant; but I'm glad he brought it up, for it gave me a chance to review my past posting and realize how far John McCain has come in making himself -- for want of a better term -- a "kinder and gentler" campaigner. I am convinced that the McCain of two years ago would absolutely have picked Joe Lieberman (I-CT, 70% D) -- or at least Lindsey Graham (R-, 83%) -- as his running mate... not Gov. Sarah Palin.

And that, I believe, is why so many conservatives, who once despised him, now embrace him: Not because they have changed what they demand in a presidential nominee, not because they are hypocritical or simply pragmatic, but because McCain himself, like good cheese, has finally mellowed with age.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, September 3, 2008, at the time of 4:47 AM

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Tracked on September 4, 2008 10:23 PM


The following hissed in response by: nash

I can't speak for any other conservatives, but the only reason McCain has become palatable to me is because the Dems chose Obama who chose Biden as his Veep and I'm sincerely hoping McCain drops dead is forced to retire from office before he can sign another amnesty or global warming legislation.

The above hissed in response by: nash [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 7:06 AM

The following hissed in response by: Doc-obiwan

I was under the impression the Veep selection should "complement" rather than "compliment" the presidential nominee...though from the speeches I've heard, the latter is part of the job, too.

Nits aside, I agree(d) with your 2006 assessment of Mr. McCain. But now we're stuck with him, and my attitude had been one of "I'll vote for him, but I won't like it, and you can't make me."

The selection of Sarah Palin has absolutely delighted me. I've been watching her for a year or so, and liked what I saw, but never though anyone would give her serious consideration.

Most of the folks of my political bent with whom I've spoken are similarly delighted by her...the more they learn, the better they like her. I've been tagging my e-mails with the sig "Whatsisname and Palin in 08!"

Has John McCain become a better Republican (or, preferably, Conservative)? One can hope.

Didn't someone once say that the second marriage was the triumph of Hope over Experience? Well, we've got experience with McCain (vide, your Aug 2006). Now we've got to hope.

The above hissed in response by: Doc-obiwan [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 8:41 AM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

As Nash has reminded us, McCain is not a "True Conservative" in the sense that the term seems to be used today. Nor am I. Nor are you, Dafydd. Nor should anyone be.

It is quite likely that one of the reasons that you and I have warmed to McCain is that the people on the right who criticize him do so for all the wrong reasons. McCain has a lot to answer for: With Russ Feingold his name appears on one of the most egregiously stupid laws of the past quarter century, but do his critics on the right ever mention it? Nooooo. The just drag out their trusty old "Amnesty" ax and grind, grind, grind.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 10:02 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


Oops, you're right. I fixed the nit.



The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 12:17 PM

The following hissed in response by: Karmi

It was probably around June before I started warming to McCain, i.e. what choice did I have beyond voting against the Democratic Party.

Barely even thought of him or even to mentioned his name...that was about as warm as I got about him, until the Palin pick was announced.

Now, I get to vote FOR McCain/Palin...hoooray!

The above hissed in response by: Karmi [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 1:28 PM

The following hissed in response by: Watchman

While we're picking nits, Adams didn't pick Jefferson. The losing presidential candidate automatically became the VP (which as you note was stupid, but they were hoping to avoid political parties) until the passage of the 12th Amendment.

The above hissed in response by: Watchman [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 2:10 PM

The following hissed in response by: eliXelx

Kudos to you Big Lizard, for you, like McCain have grown and matured in this past year.

My objections to your choices were never personal or ideological; they were based rather on the fact that you could not see the possibilities because you were blinkered by the past. You preferred to lose an election rather than your ideological purity.

As I said many times, you cannot repeat "McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, Keating 5" like a mantra and expect to be impartial in your judgements. The past being the past is immutable; you, like many others seemed stuck there, in the great "betrayals" that you took personally and which you thought McCain was still capable of.

You simply could not conceive that the ONE Republican who did not hold to the orthodoxy of the Republican elite could be the ONLY Republican to give Republicans a chance in a Democrat year. You had no faith that those very "betrayals" that you excoriated were the "compromises" that made McCain the candidate that the Republican rank-and-file trusted!

The Republican base, in going against the conventional wisdom of its erstwhile leaders and leading bloggers was actually leading the leaders! Ann Coulter said it best and early--the Republicans chose the ONLY Republican who could win this year, and the Demoidiots chose the ONLY one who could lose!

Now on to the General! If McCain/Palin is successful there will have to be many more compromises that Republicans will take as "betrayals", but shouldn't, because it is precisely the mantra you used against McCain that got him here!

Let's not hear the whinge of "voting while holding my nose" ever again, lest you become the hypocrites you hate!

One further word in your now-open ear; T.S. Eliot said that you can only fairly criticise something that you like; if you don't like it you can never criticise it fairly!

Now you can criticise McCain!

The above hissed in response by: eliXelx [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 4:35 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


All right, the joke wasn't up to Sam Kinison level... but couldn't y'all at least recognize it was an attempt at hoomer, no matter how feeble?

Yeesh! What a tough crowd.


You preferred to lose an election rather than your ideological purity.

What ideology would that be, EliXelx?

As I said many times, you cannot repeat "McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, Keating 5" like a mantra and expect to be impartial in your judgements.

Are you reading the same blog I'm writing? I get the feeling that you've somehow got hold of the wrong URL, and you're reading something written by Michael Savage or somesuch.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2008 6:51 PM

The following hissed in response by: georgfelis

As a fellow latecomer to the McCain camp, I too had questions about voting for him. But I sat down, wrote down a list of what I liked about him and thought about it. And I am quite sure that a McCain administration would be much better than an Obama administration, and I intend on voting likewise.

The above hissed in response by: georgfelis [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 17, 2008 9:40 AM

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