Monday, 1 September 2008

The myth of McCain the maverick

As is constantly pointed out, people are not electing a Vice President this November. They are electing a President. In the case of John McCain that truism may be slightly less applicable than is normally the case. Putting morbid analysis to one side, what does the choice of Sarah Palin suggest about John McCain?

There is little doubt that the choice underscores his maverick status in the media but it does so in a rather superficial way. Sarah Palin is an outsider just as 'straight talk' McCain has positioned himself as a politician independent of his party.

Sarah Palin has indeed gone against her party machine, become a staggeringly popular Governor in Alaska, and shown herself capable of making strong decisions. Her outsider status is undeniable. John McCain's is laughable. He has voted with George W Bush over 90% of the time, he is a Senator of 22 years standing, 26 years in Congress in total. A military veteran of distinction, he now has adopted almost all of his party's orthodoxy across the gamut of social values, economic policy, foreign policy and everything in between and beyond with the one and slightly debatable exception of environmental policy. It is very difficult to imagine a more establishment figure.

Somehow, despite of all this, he still manages to maintain a maverick reputation. The selection of Sarah Palin indicates why. He gambles and the media love a gambler. There is no richer media content than an all-in poker play. That is exactly what this choice is.

The reality is that McCain is not a maverick at all. He is impulsive and there is a huge difference. This choice smacks of impulsiveness. It has superficial attractions that do not seem to hold water on closer inspection.

She is a woman so she will appeal to Hillary supporters is the basic and misguided underlying tactic behind this selection. She does but only if you ignore what she actually believes. Make no mistake, Sarah Palin is an attractive personality with a Hollywood-esque biography (if she doesn't become VP, I can see a movie of her story being made very soon but with her becoming President following a mishap to the President and going on to save the world from environmentalists or pro-choicers or some such.) The reality is though, her beliefs directly conflict with the vast bulk of Hillary supporters. She believes in placing creationism alongside evolution in schools (this should be enough to disqualify anyone from holding high office) and she is pro-life. As James Carville put it last night, there aren't many Pat Buchanan Hillary supporters.

Michael Murphy, the engaging and astute Republican strategist who worked for McCain in 2000 put it eloquently on Meet the Press this morning. His basic argument was that he would rather have more people loving McCain less, than fewer people loving him more. His fear is that Palin merely shores up the core vote. Those (few) Hillary supporters, male and female, who are more motivated by social conservatism than other issues, were likely to vote McCain anyway so there is no additional boost from Palin. Why they were voting Hillary in the first place, God only knows. Murphy feels that if the Obama campaign can get Palin on the issues rather than her biography and record, then it could actually swing other Hillary supporters to Obama.

So this impulsive choice, while seizing the news agenda spectacularly from Obama's incredible speech on Thursday evening, is likely to start to unravel unless Palin can produce some truly remarkable performances. The national gaze will be particularly on her performance in the field of foreign affairs and security.

The broader point is of greater concern, however. This impulsive side of John McCain's character is a highly unsuitable characteristic for a potential Commander-in-Chief. What if Kennedy had responded impulsively to the Cuban missile crisis? Or Carter/ Reagan to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? McCain had only met Sarah Palin twice when he made his decision. The Obama campaign has begun to draw attention to McCain's 'temperament.' This decision is one more question mark over that temperament. Even if it ends up working out for him (and it could despite the likely outcome), the very process by which he made the decision suggests why it is not the greatest idea to have him in charge of the world's most powerful military.

We've just had one shoot from the hip President with disastrous consequences. The last thing we need is another. McCain the maverick is a mythical beast. McCain the impetuous is very real and in our midst.


  1. McCain the Maverick is no myth! Take his stance on immigration, on climate change and his stances on Iraq (where he criticized the lack of planning), Katrina (where he departed from the party line and criticized the way it was handled) and on torture.

    One of John McCain's strengths, or rather his greatest strength is that he does what he believes is right. I do not discount the masterful way that Obama delivers flashy speeches but how does that prepare HIM for presidency.

    Sarah Palin was picked more due to her conservative credentials and her own "Maverick" reformer status. Her ability to attract any Hillary dissenters is just a secondary "bonus". She can help orient the campaign back to true north, McCain the reformer can be McCain the reformer again now that he has paid his dues.

    The Obamites believe in change from a pair of men who have never brought about any. The rest of us believe in change from a man and a woman who have proven they can deliver it.


  2. Well, that McCain, if he ever truly existed, no longer does (with the possible and debatable exception of environmental policy.)

    Where does McCain differ significantly from a generic socially conservative, neo-liberal, neo-conservative candidate?

    What is his 'reform' agenda? He would need a reform agenda to attain the moniker, 'the reformer.'

  3. Oh, I don't know whether you describe the speech that Obama gave last Thursday as 'flashy.' For me, it was anything but- it was both inspired and practical. And there was a genuine reform agenda agenda rather than just some self-asserted independence and 'straight talk.' Just some examples of genuine reform:

    - Reducing taxes for the vast majority of families.
    - Capital Gains Tax reform.
    - Healthcare expansion.
    - Investment in renewable energy and an independent energy policy with a 10 year horizon for independence from Middle Eastern oil.
    - Withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.
    - College fee credits in return for national or community service.
    - Hiring more teachers and paying them fairly.

    I'm sure there's more. Whatever you say about these policies, if delivered they constitute real reform. Actually, it is a massively ambitious reform agenda....