I didn't decide to run for president to start a national crusade for the political reforms I believed in or to run a campaign as if it were some grand act of patriotism. In truth, I wanted to be president because it had become my ambition to be president. . . . In truth, I'd had the ambition for a long time. -- Senator John McCain, Worth the Fighting For
After John McCain's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, I wrote this essay to honor the Senator's stirring speech and his service to our country over the years. I wrote about how the Republican party had gotten away from him with the convention's ugliness, seen in the speeches of Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin. That was on September 4, less than a week after Governor Palin had been chosen as the nominee. Just over two months ago, but it seems so much longer! In these last two months, we've come a long way and we've learned an awful lot about the players in this campaign. The drama has been so tremendous that we may look back on the this race and see a great play that was acted out across all fifty states from January, 2007, through November 4, 2008. If so, I submit that you can fit the players into classic roles. Barack Obama is the mythic hero who sets off on what seemed originally like an impossible quest (although I'll write tomorrow about how I don't think that's particularly true). Sarah Palin is the trickster who defies the norms. Joe Biden is... well, he hasn't been all that interesting this year.
John McCain is, without a doubt, the tragic figure in all of this. His is the character that agonizes over decisions and ultimately makes the choices that doom him for eternity. It's a difficult place to be, certainly, while the hero is set upon the correct path and just needs to follow it through. Obama had it relatively easy with the political environment and a Democratic Party that was crushed after two close elections and prime for the picking by the right leader. It was John McCain who had to balance his ambition with his principles with the external environment with the self-image of his party. It was a juggling act where probably even Karl Rove would drop the balls. The tragedy comes in the aftermath -- could McCain juggle all of these things and retain the reputation that made him one of the most popular politicians in America?
Well, he wouldn't be the tragic figure if the answer was "yes," would he?
I don't think it's his campaigning that did it. We can get over what people say in the heat of the moment and still like them afterwards, be it Bob Dole or Al Gore. Plus, you can tell that he's not altogether comfortable with some of the nastier stuff. He made a face when he heard someone yell that his opponent was a terrorist. He corrected the crazy "Arab" lady. He left the really ugly stuff to his running mate and his, um, plumber (?). It's not his words during this campaign that will hurt his reputation on November 5 and beyond. It's the reputation itself.
Any politician is expected to attack, but John McCain has always prided himself publicly on not being just any politician. He's supposed to be the guy that has moderates and independents in his back pocket. Instead, he needed to win over his party's base in a culture war-Karl Rove world. So his ambition won out over his principles and he allowed William Kristol and the Neo-Con All-Stars to win over the base by picking Sarah Palin. The rest is (very ugly) history.
Can we blame McCain for going along with the Palin pick? After the deal was done, can we blame him for being enthusiastic, even blindly so? He wanted to win the race. He couldn't legitimize the cacophony of criticism. The race got away from him, his advisors painted certain pictures for him of what was going on in the country; it was a train he couldn't slow down.
The tragedy is that he continued to call himself a maverick, which of course means he isn't actually one. It didn't help when his running mate started calling him "the maverick" and it just became a joke. He continued to insist that he works across the aisle, but he couldn't get the House Republicans to sign off on TARP. He talked about "country first" and what that meant for national security, but the Palin pick made that a joke as well. He used to be an angry, old man that people saw as a major asset to the Senate. Now he's just an angry, old man that people feel sorry for.
John McCain is, and will always be known as, a great American. We honor his service to our country. We just don't particularly like him anymore.