Twenty years before Jack Abramoff became a household name, the Senate Ethics Committee investigated five U.S. senators for taking cash raised by Lincoln Savings & Loan operator Charlie Keating while working to scuttle investigations of the company. The investigations effectively ended the careers of four of the “Keating Five.” The only one left in Congress is John McCain, who took more Keating cash than any of the four and also broke House rules by not disclosing trips to Keating’s retreat in the Bahamas. McCain has since convinced the Washington press corps that he’s the leading reformer in Congress.
That faith has taken hold at Yale as well, where the most ardent Bush-bashing can be followed by praise for McCain as a man of unimpeachable integrity who makes voting Republican palatable.
But even if John McCain had never taken dirty money from Keating, even if he weren’t touring the country endorsing segregationists for state legislature, even if his committee weren’t letting GOP activist extraordinaire Grover Norquist off the hook for colluding with Abramoff, the idea of progressives voting McCain in ’08 would be a sick joke. Ethics in politics isn’t just about fidelity to the law; it’s about the daily choices lawmakers face that affirm or subvert the values we want realized in this country. No amount of personal heroism or integrity could outweigh the political reality that John McCain is on the wrong side of almost every major issue facing the nation. Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum doesn’t give out 100 percent ratings just for good looks.
On a woman’s right to choose, a McCain spokesman rightly noted last year that you couldn’t fit a string between his position and the president’s. That was before McCain did Bush one better and embraced South Dakota’s new law banning abortion without exception for rape and incest. McCain voted two weeks ago to extend Bush’s tax cuts while calling for cuts in social spending in the name of deficit reduction. Last week, at the National Republican Leadership Conference, he brought down the house with his declaration that, “Anybody who says the President of the United States is lying about weapons of mass destruction is lying.” The National Journal reported that McCain’s most repeated phrase at that conference was “the president did exactly the right thing.” Yet John McCain inspires in many liberals the same peculiar urge that Colin Powell did: the need to believe, no matter how many statements he makes to the contrary, that he secretly agrees with them on the issues we care about (the McCain myth also appeals to those students — overrepresented at Yale — who persist in the belief that there can be politics without ideology).
Even McCain’s well-publicized ideological indiscretions, like his opposition to bribery, global warming and torture, are often less than they appear. In December, McCain claimed victory after the White House backed down from a threatened veto of a bill with language McCain had inserted barring American soldiers from torturing people. Then Bush made a statement while signing the law that nothing in the text curtails his executive authority to authorize whatever he wants. McCain raised no objections, and Bush’s public refusal to be limited by the law got little press. Instead, John McCain got to bask in another round of warm publicity about his personal integrity and maverick politics.
What explains the persistence of the McCain myth? Too many reporters are hopeless suckers for ostensible mavericks whose clashes with party leadership can be breathlessly reported and whose ostensibly moderate politics can be projected onto broad swaths of America (those politicians who offer proposals advocated by neither party leadership — like decriminalizing marijuana or raising the cap on payroll tax — never seem to get the same kind of attention).
But it’s not just the media. The party out of power stands to gain from having a more moderate member of the governing party whose praises they can sing to seize the center, and whose intermittent criticisms of his own party leadership they can seize on for support. And the party in power stands to gain from the presence of an ostensible outsider who can build up credibility through occasional criticism and then use it to rise to his leaders’ defense when they really need it. That’s why we see Democrats and Republicans both rushing to associate themselves with McCain and reinforce his popularity. But such a power struggle is a zero-sum game; only one party can be better off for McCain’s popularity. And it’s not the Democrats.
You might think they’d have learned their lesson after the 2004 election, when John Kerry tried to prove his mainstream credentials by publicly courting McCain — who substantively disagreed with him on every major issue of the campaign — to join his ticket. The quixotic campaign simply allowed the GOP to upstage Kerry’s announcement of John Edwards’ selection with a television ad of McCain singing the praises of the president. And worse, in the long term, it reinforced in who knows how many voters’ minds the idea that conservatives represent the American mainstream. That’s a gift to the GOP that will just keep giving.
It remains to be seen whether McCain will be the Republican nominee in three years. But whoever the nominee is will be running with McCain’s endorsement. And that nominee will be pushing the same right-wing ideology for which McCain is America’s most popular proponent.
Josh Eidelson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.