I have been asking myself, since the primaries began in earnest with the Iowa caucus, and especially since John McCain won in New Hampshire, "Why does the conservative talk show contingent despise John McCain so profoundly?" Except for Michael Medved, who I think has openly endorsed McCain, the loathing for him as a presidential candidate is almost as pronounced as the conservative media's loathing of Hillary Clinton. Why?
I have to say I was puzzled until I looked into this more deeply. (Understand, I am not formally endorsing a candidate, though some will insist that I am, but asking a serious question that I think thoughtful people should ponder.)
For the record John McCain's well-deserved career title is that of a "maverick." But he is a very conservative maverick no less. I went to the Web site of the American Conservative Union, a lobby organization that ranks congressional members each year with a percentage of how consistently conservative they are in their voting record. John McCain got an 82% rating in 2006. Kansas senator Sam Brownback, a much respected Roman Catholic conservative from Kansas who dropped out of the presidential primary a few weeks ago, got a 94% rating from the ACU. And Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma conservative, got a 98% rating. So, who do you think these two strongly conservative senators have endorsed for president? You would never guess John McCain if you listen to the conservative talk show media. And my own congressman for decades, the late Henry Hyde, got an 84% rating. Hyde was replaced by another conservative in 2007 who was strongly promoted by Hyde himself, Congressman Peter Roskam. Congressman Roskam, also an evangelical Christian conservative, has now openly endorsed McCain. McCain actually came to our county to work for Roskam's election in a very tight race in the fall of 2006 without Roskam ever asking him to do so. So what gives here? Why do all these conservatives love John McCain? (And four former secretary-of-states also endorse him.) It seems to all be at complete odds with the conservative talkers. Could it be that these political leaders and statesmen know the man and the conservative media simply reacts to the maverick spirit of the man they cannot control and do not fully understand?
The fact that many moderates and independents, and even some Democrats have endorsed John McCain drives these very same conservative talkers wild. Their talking points against McCain are always the same: 1. The McCain-Feingold campaign reform was a bad deal. 2. The so-called Gang of Fourteen was a terrible idea and McCain helped make it all happen and led it. 3. McCain's admitting that we needed to seriously address the environmental issue more aggressively (a view none other than Newt Gingrich has now also embraced) is suspicious to these conservatives who never met an environmental argument they agreed with except that it is a non-issue and only exists in the imagination of liberals. 4. The McCain-Kennedy bill on illegal immigration, that was shot down in 2007, was a terrible approach to the immigration issue. This may have sealed the deal for most of the rabid conservatives who hate McCain so much. (By the way Bush backed this plan too.) 5. Finally, voting against the Bush tax-cut bill, which McCain now says needs to be protected and kept in place when it expires, was a political death warrant with some. He voted against the Bush bill because he insisted that spending must also be cut. (What a novel idea!) I could add more but these are clearly the major talking points that you hear over and over when these conservatives rail against John McCain.
Well, I began to do some personal research about all of this the past three weeks. I was not a big fan of McCain but I wanted to give him further thought than I had to that point. Here are my short responses what I discovered. First, McCain-Feingold may have had good motives behind it but it ended up as bad piece of legislation, at least in my view. It harmed freedom and did not do what it set out to do. I still oppose it.
Second, the gang of fourteen actually helped every one of President Bush's conservative appointments to the federal courts
get through the senate, including the two most important ones,
Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts. This agreement by these fourteen members of Congress proved to be politically productive and helped bring about a much better tone to the Washington impasse. This was change, the magic word these days, and it was for the better in the end. Third, admitting that we have a real environmental issue is not the same as agreeing with the politics of Al Gore and the eco-religion of the far left. Reasonable people can agree that something is happening with regard to harmful emissions into the environment and still disagree about how to tackle the issue without hurting the economy unduly. Saying there is no issue here seems entirely foolish to most of us. Four, the immigration bill that McCain promoted was not the best. It failed for several reasons, however. Remember, Reagan promoted and signed the first amnesty program for illegals in 1987. But McCain now openly says, "We must secure the borders and then talk about what comes next for 12 million illegals." (Huckabee today actually promised to send all 12 million illegals back home in his first 120 days. Just try to figure that out. I can't think of a more foolish campaign promise than that! Five, John McCain is simply right about linking tax cuts to spending cuts. Duh! His record is that of a fiscal conservative and he has shown that time and time again.
So, why is John McCain hated so profoundly? I think it comes down to the way that he speaks, votes and writes and thus how he refuses to be put into a box. I have bothered to read a great deal of McCain's thought in his numerous books. He is prolific. No other candidate has written as much as John McCain. (I think there are several very, very bright people on both sides of this election if the truth be known but none is surely any brighter than John McCain. No one can run against him the way they did George W. Bush on this point.) He is a self-effacing, funny, and very charming writer. At times he is so realistic about evil, and the dangers that we really face, that he sounds more like a prophet. This man is an impressive thinker and a truly great American. It is not an accident that the people in military leadership strongly support John McCain. This is even part of how he hopes to win in South Carolina this weekend. (I have asked every former military officer I know and every single one of them is voting for McCain.)
So why is he hated for the way he speaks and writes and votes? Well, he says things the way he sees them and he works with anyone who will work alongside of him for what he believes in. He also seeks to build bridges across party barriers. (This is why the rumors flew wildly today that he "almost" ran for VP with John Kerry in 2004 so he is a liberal in conservative sheep's clothing, a line you will get from Rush Limbaugh for one. The truth is McCain is said to be personally very friendly with both Senator Clinton and Obama and that each one of them likes him, a rare human characteristic in a man with such decidedly different views than Clinton and Obama, who are quite close in terms of their voting records.) And the Joe Lieberman endorsement, which deeply impresses me looks more like a sell-out to the conservative ideologues who stick to their litmus test as the true measure of a good leader. Look, George W. Bush used some pretty old political tactics to beat back a serious John McCain challenge in South Carolina eight years ago. In the eight years since then John McCain has supported George W. Bush almost every time that he sought his personal help. There is no, I repeat no, evidence that McCain spent this time attacking Bush over the past eight years. (This would not even be politically smart if you think about it. Further more, since when did not agreeing with George W. Bush, who most conservatives admit blew the budget with reckless spending and never used the veto to stop it, become tantamount to political heresy?)
But these talk show hosts and political writers/bloggers just keep firing away. If John McCain were the actual nominee I wonder what they would do. I say again, these people seem to hate the man for his honest way of not playing the line and holding the rope on every single issue that is on their litmus list. Oddly, many of these same voices support Governor Romney, who has changed his views on a number of points, and openly admits it. He sounds one way in New Hampshire and then another in Michigan, at least as I heard him this last week or so. (I still can't see why he told autoworkers that he could get their jobs back. If you believe that you are living in a world that has passed you by.) Romney sounded to the left of Ted Kennedy in the early 1990s in a Massachusetts race for the Senate. If you watch this debate with Senator Kennedy on You Tube you will see what I mean. But McCain has held the same pro-life position for twenty-six years in Congress. McCain is conservative fiscally and has never, never taken pork for Arizona projects. He is also a conservative socially, without pandering to the evangelicals. And he is far and away the most conservative candidate on how he would defend the nation and face the world in the years ahead.
I heard Chuck Norris, a really likable guy, talking to Michael Medved a few days ago. He is excited about Huckabee. He began by saying that he was John McCain's friend. That surprised me frankly. He went so far as to say that he loved him personally. So why is he supporting Huckabee? Two reasons: 1. McCain is just too old. (Anybody remember Ronald Reagan?) 2. Huckabee has a better tax plan, even though the one he now proposes could never get through Congress in a four-year term. (By the way, Huckabee has no international plan and admits he will have to get one after the primaries. That's not too exciting to me.) That was it for Chuck Norris, the tireless supporter of Governor Huckabee. The lack of serious political realism here is amazing to me. This is one reason why the endorsement of public personalities who do not know Congress, and how things do get changed, means nothing to me. But who gets the most endorsements from active members of Congress? John McCain. And who said the Bush plan in Iraq was wrong and then helped force the change that is helping us actually change the situation right now? Yes, John McCain again.
So, I repeat my point. The angry, hostile reaction of people like Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter and their ilk tells me much more about them than it does about Senator John McCain, the man and the patriot. It has gotten to the point where I would rather listen to liberal talk radio talk (yes, we get that in Chicago along with conservative talk radio) about Obama and Clinton and their "differences" than to most of the conservatives, Medved excepted. It is the angry conservatives who are so often rude and lacking in basic civility. This coarsens our society and is beneath any thing worthy of being called Christian. (Some of these people, in fact all three I named above, confess to being Christians and may all well be real Christians. I expect they are.) I only listen to "talk" when I am in my car but I have opted for FM classical of late. I can also see why young people hate these campaigns.
Roger Cohen, an op ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote today the following thoughts about John McCain:
Nobody’s been right all the time on Iraq, but Senator John McCain has been less wrong than most. He knew a bungled war when he saw one and pressed early for increased force levels. He backed the injection last year of some 30,000 troops, a surge that has produced results. Modest results, yes, and violence has blipped upward again this month, and, yes, Iraqi political progress is slow. But progress is always slow when a population terrorized over decades is freed. Violent attacks were down 60 percent in December from their 2007 high and refugees have begun to go home.
A trickle homeward, yes, a speck in the ocean of 2.2 million Iraqis forced into exile, but tens of thousands of people don’t return unless they see hope. That’s why more than 4 million Afghans have gone home since the Taliban’s fall.
McCain was politically dead six months ago, his campaign undone by his backing of President Bush’s Iraq policy. His remarkable resurgence, which has put him in the lead among Republican candidates, according to recent polls, is one measure of the Iraq shift.
That shift has unsettled the political ground. With Iraq looking less hopeless, McCain has scored points for being consistent and forthright on the war—a quality shared only by Barack Obama (in his opposition to it) among leading candidates.
At the same time, an economy getting a subprime pummeling has nudged Iraq from the center of Americans’ concerns. The victory of McCain’s rival Mitt Romney in the Michigan primary came in a state craving quick fixes for 7.4 percent unemployment. McCain didn’t offer that.
So, three states have chosen distinct Republican candidates, with a social conservative, Mike Huckabee, triumphing in Iowa; McCain taking New Hampshire with independent support; and Romney using his C.E.O. image to win Michigan. Bush’s party is split: God, heroic nation and Wall Street are out of sync.
It’s been widely assumed that the Democratic Party’s shoot-itself-in-the-foot capacity, evident in 2004, would have to hit overdrive to wrest defeat from victory this year. These Republican splits comfort the notion of inevitable Democratic triumph.
But, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute noted, “There’s no doubt that the one Republican candidate that leaves most Democrats quaking is McCain. They’re uneasy about the breadth of his appeal.”
McCain’s attractiveness to independents, between 10 percent and 30 percent of the vote nationally, involves policy and personality. His readiness to take on global warming, back immigration and demand legal representation for war on terror detainees give him centrist appeal at the price of opposition within his party.
Sounds like an endorsement from a Republican doesn't it? It is not. read on:
But McCain does not win the wavering as policy wonk; he’s flesh and blood. The straight-talking survivor of more than five years of Vietnamese imprisonment is at home in his own skin in a way Bush will never be. McCain has a temper but no need to be macho to convince. He walks without his arms clenched.
None of this would matter if McCain’s support of the Iraq war had condemned him. But it now appears that is not the case. In New Hampshire, where independents were an important factor, McCain’s support was broad. He tends to defy categorization.
This last statement of Roger Cohen says it better than I can put it. He defies the narrow, divisive and strident categories of the far right and this makes him on the "out" with most of these talking heads. It really is obvious to me. But, adds Cohen :
But he’s categorical in his opposition to tyranny. Saddam Hussein, as Nick Cohen, a British author, observes in his important book on liberal hypocrisy in Iraq called “What’s Left?,” represented “not a tin-pot dictator but real Fascism,” complete with a “messianic one-party state” and “armies that swept out in unprovoked wars” and “secret policemen who organized the gassing of ‘impure’ races.”
This death-and-genocide machine killed about 400,000 Iraqis in internal persecutions and another million or so people in Iran and Kuwait. When you’ve been imprisoned, as McCain has, you know what terror means: death of spirit, soul, life itself.
I have heard recent conservative rant that John McCain can not lead America because his injuries in Vietnam make him unfit to lead physically and mentally. He is too weak, too old and his mind just is not working right. Come on, who are you kidding? The man is alive and well. He is tireless and has a vision. And he seems to be the only Republican many young people actually like, which also galls the conservative far right talkers it seems.
Again listen to Cohen:
Saddam’s nightmare ended in a misbegotten, mishandled, bloody and costly war. Does Bush’s fraudulent, blunder-ridden rush to war matter more than the prizing of 26 million human beings from a sadistic tyrant who modeled himself on Hitler and Stalin?
That core question has seldom, if ever, been dignified by honest debate through all the verbal Iraq wars fought on U.S. soil. I still believe Iraq’s freedom outweighs its terrible price. So does McCain. In the looming battle between the Baptist minister, the corporate whiz and the war hero — and perhaps Mr. 9/11 — to unite the frayed strands of Republicanism, McCain now has a fighting chance.
Again this is not an endorsement by Cohen or by me. It is a reflection of what I see as I dig and dig and then keep listening to all the stuff out there and try to sort it out the best that I can.
I'll be perfectly honest about this. I do not want an "evangelical" block vote for one candidate. I think it hurts our mission and confuses both church and state seriously. And I do not want a minister as president. I admit it. I do not want a liberal minister or a conservative one. Ministers make for compassionate care-givers and great preachers, if they are gifted and called, but not presidents.
Evangelicals seem so naive when it comes to using their influence in political and cultural wars. We are a collective group of "johnny-come-lately" thinkers, if we think at all. And when it comes to politics it really shows. While Huckabee uses pulpits and ministers to round up support for his campaign, John McCain, a professed Christian who attends an evangelical church in Arizona, doesn't take the same approach at all. He operates the way candidates did for decades before the Christian Right came on the scene. Maybe he knows that he has no chance to get this block of votes but on the other hand his numbers are not bad among evangelicals either, which says some conservatives are simply not following their pastor's leadership in this instance.
Cohen then concludes:
If he’s nominated, some lines would be blurred in the White House fight. McCain’s not my choice for president. He’s too conservative across a range of social questions, and his temperament and age raise concerns. But he’s too honorable to dismiss at a moment so critical to U.S. standing in the world.
Note, please I urge you, that Cohen doesn't support McCain nor endorse him. I am not endorsing him either. I am simply making a case for listening to McCain and for not buying all that the talkers say about him at face value. Read the accounts of his life and his mistakes too. Disagree with him for sure. Listen to what he says about how he failed his first wife more than twenty-five years ago. He is both honest and decent in blaming himself, a far cry from saying something like "Everybody makes mistakes."
I am not sure if John McCain can get the nomination. And if he does what happens then if Michael Bloomberg jumps into the race? He would, so it seems, hurt the Democrats more than the Republicans but even that is uncharted water. So it does look more and more like this whole thing will come down to the convention itself in the summer, which would be a first time for that to happen since before I was born. That will make for real theater. I can still remember some early black and theater at these conventions that enthralled me as a boy getting my first taste of this whole American political process. The more things have changed the more they stay the same really. Maybe age gives me that perspective but I do believe it is essentially true.
The Democrats are not likely to do the same as either Clinton or Obama will likely break out of the pack after Super Tuesday. If a divided Republican scenario happens then I fully expect that many conservatives will do anything they possibly can to stop John McCain because of their intense hatred for him.
I was browsing some more this evening and found a great John McCain quote. It is vintage McCain and it so obvious that it is really quite profound in a simple and important way. And this is not the stuff you hear from most politicians who want your vote. Said Senator McCain, "Presidents don't lose wars, political parties don't lose wars, nations lose wars. And when nations lose wars, nations suffer." This is the truth. Plain talk for sure.
The more I read the more I become convinced that the other party also fears McCain. They fear him more than anyone else on the Republican side because they see him as weighty and formidable enough to appeal broadly to the electorate. I think they are right to fear him since he can stand up to anyone and he will say whatever he thinks, whether you like him or not. This guy is fearless even if he is not always a good candidate. This is precisely why he was so popular eight years ago, especially among the young. Could it work out this time, even when he is already past 70 years of age? I do not propose to know but it will surely be an interesting few weeks and months to see how this all finally unfolds.