Thirty Years Too Late: The Implosion of John McCain and the Demise of the Regressive Right
There are lots of good explanations for why John McCain is rapidly swirling down the toilet bowl into the sewer of political ignominy, but my all-time favorite was just published in the New York Times Magazine this week.
The article – "The Making (and Remaking) of McCain", by Robert Draper – gives an explanation for McCain's idiotic-to-the-point-of-embarrassing stunt last month, at the time when the economic meltdown was initially kicking into hyperdrive. McCain's response – to suggest cancelling the debate, ‘suspending' his campaign, and parachuting into Washington to heroically save the empire from the evil capitalist derivative speculators (uh, oops – yeah, that's right – the same ones he's been flacking for his entire career) – marked the beginning of his slide into historical footmarkery, right down there with the likes of Bob Dole and Lil' Danny Quayle.
But that wasn't actually the bit I had in mind for my favorite explanation of McCain's demise. Nor, for that matter, was it even the fact that this great ploy – soon to be enshrined in a place of pride within the Political Buffoonery Hall of Fame – was crafted by none other than Steve Schmidt, McCain's chief strategist. You might have thought that that alone was hysterical enough, given that Schmidt is a protégé of Karl Rove (though he apparently hates being labeled as such), and that these were the very same folks who had ruined McCain himself back in 2000, using the Atwood/Rove/Schmidt character assassination playbook.
So – lemme guess – you're thinking: "Ah, what sweet justice. There is a god, after all!" But it actually gets better. Here's why: according to the article, all this happened because the guy who John McCain picked to run his campaign once got the "smartest bit of political wisdom he ever heard" from – are you ready for this? – really? – wait for it now... none other than that renowned national genius, George W. Bush.
And what did Bush teach him, other than the value of "manning up" and "going all in" (I'm not making this stuff up) with stunts like McCain's little economic crisis bombing run, a sortie in which he managed to crash the sixth aircraft of his career? Now this – this – is the part I really like. Back in 2004, Bush, the only complacent guy in the room, calmly told Schmidt that he shouldn't worry that the boss's campaign appeared at the time to be falling apart. Why? Because, Bush averred, voters have an "accidental genius" by which they can sniff out the true character of a candidate!
Amazing. Of course, W (and who knew that was short for Wise One?) didn't mention the part about how swiftboating the shit out of your opponent, or disenfranchising droves of African American and student voters can also help to put you over the top when that good old voter intuition occasionally goes AWOL – like in 2000 and 2004 – just as W himself did for a couple of years when he was in the National Guard. And then of course there's always that little Supreme Court trick, too, when things get really difficult.
This is the guru to the guru who is running the McCain campaign? Okay. Well that certainly explains a thing or two.
One thing we've clearly learned from the Cringe Decade's nightmare of unmitigated regressive rule is just how incompetent these clowns truly are. It was clear to most folks – at least those still registering some measurable amount of synaptic activity on the monitors – that the right was, of course, lying absurdly about Iraq, about taxes, about Social Security, about prescription drug benefits, and about much, much more. And some people have even caught on to the deeper lie of the entire regressive movement – that it is not simply a misguided ideology whose policy prescriptions were disastrous, but rather that it is actually a deeply pernicious kleptocratic treason conspiracy hiding behind a rag-tag improvisation of ideological hodge-podge (such as, for example, the exquisitely appropriately named Laffer Curve), designed for the sole purpose of pretending to link whatever present conditions might exist to whatever predetermined policy outcome was long ago decided upon.
Clearly, for example, the administration made the decision to invade Iraq first, then went looking for justifications that could be used to market the war later. Paul Wolfowitz even admitted this in his "bureaucratic reasons" explanation for how they all agreed on WMD as the fear factor they'd use to sell the war. Another classic example came from Bush's advocacy, as a candidate during flush times in 2000, of massive tax cuts. By the time he got to the White House, however, the economy was headed in a recessionary direction, and yet he was still advocating the same remedy for the polar opposite economic condition. It was as if the guy had read the first three chapters of John Maynard Keynes in his college macro class, but never bothered to get to the rest. Much more likely, of course, was that he had been too drunk to read any of it, and wouldn't have been so inclined, anyhow, had he somehow miraculously sobered up for a day or two. I mean, why study when you can be practicing your cheerleading routines instead? And anyhow, who needs that academic nonsense, anyhow, either at Yale or in the Oval Office? The economic theory mumbo-jumbo was for Rove to figure out in order to direct the marketing roll-out, just as if it were some sort of plastic Thanksgiving photo-op turkey for the troops. Bush already knew the policy choice in advance, and he sure as hell wasn't going to let some pointy-headed ivory tower ideas or the cold, hard evidence from centuries of real-world experience dissuade him. I mean, what would be the point of a Bush presidency, anyhow, if it wasn't to hoover up every shred of wealth from the public commons, nailed down or (preferably) not? To govern in the public interest, perhaps? Pshaw! Yeah, right. That's a good one, dude.
But even Americans who thought regressives clearly to be liars or thieves might still have believed that they were highly competent, especially if you'd had your brain Luntz-framed long enough to believe that MBA CEO types are tough, skilled, administrative whiz-bangs (you know, like the guys at Lehman Brothers, AIG, General Motors, etc.). It was easy to mistake that sometimes, because normally they're very good at marketing and at winning elections. But this year, the right can't even begin to get that right. The McCain-Palin campaign is a pathetic thing to see these days. Such as it is, even. There hardly seems to be a single campaign anymore, as a candidate so stiff he makes Bob Dole (even the 1996 version) look like James Dean by comparison lurches from embarrassing attack to awkward teleprompter-read, even-more-embarrassing, attack. My friends. There hardly seems to be a single campaign anymore, as insiders scramble to save their reputations, leaking stories claiming that they were off smoking a cigarette somewhere when the campaign debacle hit. And there hardly seems to be a single campaign anymore, as every day McCain's running mate goes increasingly more native, leaving the reservation to begin her presidential campaign for 2012. All this might seem ungracious, but that's only because, in fact, it is. It sure ain't surprising, though. Any movement that builds its core ideology around the worship of an infantilist, developmentally-stunted, self-aggrandizement will inevitably wind up eating its young. It's not a matter of if, but when. And it's no longer even a matter of when, but now.
Politics is rife with ironies, and perhaps never so much as this particular cycle. In many ways, John McCain should actually be winning this race, notwithstanding his daily acts of circus buffoonery and his decision to place his campaign in the hands of someone so sharp he regards George W. Bush as a profound political sage. The public is really nervous these days, and a well-known and well-trusted leader with that m-word (I can't possibly hear it one more time) brand could really have made a case for being the sort of steady rock people crave in a crisis like the current economic meltdown. A different McCain might really have taken this in a run-away. But not this one. Obama has shrewdly tied McCain to Bush, but that isn't really McCain's problem. Rather, it's his being joined at the hip to Bushism, which is at its core Republicanism, which is at its core regressivism. That's McCain's problem.
The irony here is that, while McCain has proven to be a scary monster at many junctures of his life and career, I don't think he is at heart really a regressive in the mold of, say, Dick Cheney or Mitch McConnell. In fact, having been savaged in 2000 by the ‘agents of intolerance' inside and outside of the Bush campaign, he actually really hated the SOBs, and with good cause. But McCain wanted – more than anything and for the entirety of his life – to be president, and he made a calculation that his best strategy for getting there was to make nice to the radical right, support Bush for eight years, and then run again as the heir apparent in 2008. What he evidently didn't consider in this sell-off of his principles to the lowest bidder was the possibility that he was hitching himself to a wagon that was headed over a cliff. Into a bottomless pit. Located on an imploding black hole star. George W. Bush is a human wrecking machine of historical proportions, second only to the likes of Hitler, Stalin or Mao (yet another way in which Bush is a two-bit hack – he couldn't even do genocide right). The good senator was only one of Bush's many victims, though McCain perhaps alone among them has the dubious honor of having been diddled by the Boy King not once, but twice.
Among the great ironies of this election is that had McCain adopted another strategy, he might have had a pretty good shot at the presidency. One possibility would have been to renounce the GOP and become a Democrat. He could certainly have argued, with a straight face, that he wasn't leaving the Republican Party, but that the Republican Party had left him. He might even have captured the Democratic nomination, and almost certainly would have destroyed a Mitt Romney or a Rudy Giuliani in the general election had he done so. Perhaps even more plausibly, he could have become an independent and run a third party campaign for president. McCain – like, say, Colin Powell – was one of the few Americans with the stature and reputation sufficient to pull that off, and it would in fact have suited his politics and temperament much better to have done so.
Instead, he tied himself to Bush, while Bush tied himself to the cement shoes of regressive politics and jumped off the bridge, taking down his own party and his party's presidential nominee with him (not to mention a million Iraqis, 4,200 Americans, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, Bar, Poppy and Jeb, along with many, many more folks foolish enough to allow themselves within his orbit). It's truly astonishing if you think about it. This little twirp's need to redeem himself after a lifetime of failure and insecurity has produced destruction of galactic proportions. In any case, McCain made the wrong choice, put ambition first, above all else (including, with the Palin pick, above country), and gambled that Bush wouldn't wreck the GOP brand before November 2008. Oops. By going to bed with the likes of George Bush, McCain definitely owns his own fate. And there's more than a little delight in watching a practitioner of these debauched politics destroy himself. He's stuck with a base that loves Bush and Bushism, all while trying to attract independents who are ready to hurl at the prospect of either. Every independent vote McCain might acquire – however implausibly, given his voting record (but then this is America, so anything can be sold) – by dissing Bush, means a Republican voter disenchanted. Likewise, every play to keep the base happy with some inane red meat about socialism or terrorism only simultaneously alienates still sentient Americans in the middle. The Palin selection epitomizes this dynamic. Whatever else he thought she might bring to the table (corruption charges, perhaps? shocking idiocy? disloyalty to the guy who made her?), part of the rationale for her selection was to do something John McCain was unable to do himself – namely, to get Republicans interested in the 2008 Republican presidential ticket. And so it did, but it has cost him dearly with just about every other voter, who look upon Palin with dropped-jaw astonishment, and McCain with deeply flawed judgement.
Meanwhile, nowadays George Bush is almost nowhere to be found. He is irrelevant to any policy discussions, and if he is even remotely semi-conscious, would count himself lucky to be off the radar screen of a country and a world filled with an anger and anxiety that is the direct product of his destructive policies. When right-wing commentator – and former press secretary for Newt Gingrich – Tony Blankley describes a Republican leader by noting that "The existing American president is a failed thing", you know it's all very, very far gone down the tubes. But notice how they all adored Bush when he was flying high. The current state of the Republican Party isn't just the product of a one-man demolition derby. This has been a carcinogenic genetic mutation masquerading as a mass ideology, and it's had a lot of adherents.
The great farce of the GOP, which soon became the tragedy of the nation and the world, was to actually govern. They would have been so much better off to retain their natural role as carping cranks, spreading disinformation at every turn, making up scandals for the other guys, proliferating and hiding their own, occasionally impeaching presidents. But they made the mistake of actually seizing power, after which an entire world could see what they're really about, the destructiveness of their policies, their breathtaking arrogance, as well as their astonishing incompetence at providing for the basic functions of governance. I suppose we can't entirely blame them for their own self-destruction. I mean, who knew that imploding economies, drowning cities, oceans of debt, disastrous wars based on lies, alienation of centuries-old allies, dismantling of Social Security, falling worker salaries, rising costs, diminishing healthcare, a massive terrorist attack while the president was on vacation, the national shame of torture, or catastrophic environmental disaster – who knew these would be unpopular policies?
The regressive movement – so deluded that they still like to think of themselves as conservatives – is on death watch now, and yet it doesn't know it, nor does it remotely begin to understand why. But the reasons – both proximate and distant – are plain enough to see. The immediate problem is that they ran a pathetic candidate against a great candidate. More importantly, they ran a slimy, Rovian campaign against a guy who knew how to fight back, and also had the guts to do so, and they presented it all to a national electorate that is frightened enough to no longer be willing to indulge foolery anymore. The proof of this is that John McCain might actually have the best night of any Republican candidate on Tuesday, as Democrats massively increase their majorities in both the House and the Senate, perhaps even gaining a filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate majority, perhaps even giving Senate Minority Leader and major scuzzbucket Mitch McConnnell (from Kentucky no less!) his walking papers. And, as if that weren't proof enough, this comes after a similar blow-out in 2006, when the GOP got a "thumpin'", and lost control of both houses of Congress. And, to top it all off, voters don't even particularly like Democrats, and they sure don't like the current Congress, which is controlled by Democrats. It's rare for an American political party to get stomped two elections in a row, let alone by a generally disliked alternative party. You have to be screwing up really badly to do that, in a collective effort sort of way.
Which, of course, is exactly what we're talking about. Only regressives don't know it. They think their policies and attitudes are popular in America. They think George W. Bush's problem was that he wasn't regressive enough. If only he had invaded Iran as well as Iraq! If only he had deregulated Wall Street even more. If only he had encouraged more oil consumption and more carbon emissions. If only he had eliminated abortion rights. If only he had cut wealthy Americans' tax liabilities down to zero, shifting those burdens to the middle class. If only he had done to all of us what he did to Terri Schiavo's family. If only he had eliminated all government spending on popular programs. If only he had privatized Social Security and let Wall Street handle it. If only he had wasted even more Iraqis and more American GIs. If only he had let Osama bin Laden roam even freer, even longer. If only he had quadrupled the national debt, instead of merely doubling it. If only Exxon/Mobil had made even more than their all-time corporate record-breaking earnings, while the rest of us were unable to buy enough gas to get to work. If only Bush could have appointed more regressive justices to the federal bench, where they could find that we have no constitutional right to privacy, and who would make sure that corporate and presidential power trump the people's and the people's representatives' at every turn. If only there could have been more jobs lost on his watch. If only we could have seen wages fall lower. If only the country could have had its wealth more polarized so we could better emulate rotten banana republics. If only we could have been more divided politically. If only we could have made the world hate us more. If only more of our cities could have drowned. If only we could have hurtled toward planetary destruction even faster.
Hah-hah, right? Guess, what? It's only partly a joke. Most regressives earnestly believe in most of the items on the above wish list, and earnestly believe that they represent majority opinion in America. Seriously. I'm. Not. Kidding.
Fortunately, in this there is great hope for this country's recovery. For as regressives meet to lick their wounds – and I know of three such immediate post-election major summonings to the Council of Darkness already scheduled – they will be as oblivious to the cause of their demise as were their ancestors, the dinosaurs. Which means they will also be oblivious to any meaningful solution. Which, by definition, they would necessarily have to be anyhow, since the only real solution for them would be to pack up their bags, join the ACLU, and become liberals. I mean that quite seriously (and we are, in fact, already beginning to see the leading edge of that coming stampede), because, at the end of the day, the fundamental flaw of regressivism is regressivism itself. Their ideas – now explored in total, now fully tested in practice – don't work, and therefore aren't popular. They never were, in fact, popular, but a healthy dose of marketing genius applied to a narcissistic, selfish and willfully ignorant electorate was nevertheless enough to put regressives over the top time and again, starting with Reagan. Now, even that old black magic has ceased to work.
Thus, the real explanation for the regressive rout we are witnessing runs deeper than George W. Bush, and in fact goes to his very electoral success. People have seen what it means to put these criminals in charge and – despite the fact that the public actually doesn't know the half of it yet – they don't like what they see.
Likewise, the explanation for the regressive train wreck also certainly goes deeper than the pathetic figure of John McCain. But, in so many ways - stylistically and ethically, even more than politically - the McCain of 2008 has become the very living embodiment of the moral cancer hiding behind the sham ideology of free markets, strong national defense and obsessive sexual regulation. And he is being received accordingly.
A recent New York Times article described the senator's sentiments in the wake of his loss in 2000 to that scion of darkness - the ultimate child of privilege, history's all-time greatest legacy admittee to life - the guy who employed Rovian scorched earth techniques to take out not only a war hero opponent, but also a member of his own party. Despite this humiliating defeat at the hands of a patently inferior being, McCain could still hold his head high. "After his loss, he professed himself grateful, at the age of 65, for what might be left of his time. ‘I did not get to be president of the United States. And I doubt I shall have reason or opportunity to try again,' he wrote, but added, ‘I might yet become the man I always wanted to be.'"
Sadly, McCain was wrong on both predictions.
He did have the reason and opportunity to try again, and he seized them vigorously - though from the perspective of his honor and his legacy in history he would have been better off not to.
Because he also didn't become the man that he, or anyone else, would want to be. Instead, he hired the very same assassination team used against him in the 2000 election, and he employed their very same techniques against a decent and honorable opponent, whose great crime was peddling hope and justice to a battered and morally hungry American electorate.
And thus, instead of raising his party and country from the gutter of Bushism, John McCain dove down into it himself, with a literal and figurative vengeance.
He didn't become the man he always wanted to be. Instead, he became George W. Bush.
Whoever wanted to be that?
Not even George W. Bush.