By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
If John McCain's life is, as it sometimes seems, one of those old-time movie serials, the audience would now know that with the GOP presidential nomination within reach, he is about to enter yet another period of maximum peril. The danger this time, as it sometimes is with McCain, is that he will forget who he is -- rebel, insurgent, etc. -- and try to prove that he is a boring, conventional Republican with all the wrong views. Beware, John. It's a trap.
Nothing commends McCain more than his enemies. The fact that Rush Limbaugh hates him is a pretty good reason by itself to vote for McCain. When you throw in that political pornographer Ann Coulter and some of the other personalities on Reactionary Radio, you can see that McCain has attributes worth pondering. It's not always possible to judge a man by his friends, but his enemies always tell you something.
In McCain's case, it is that he sometimes suffers seizures of common sense. One came over him when he initially supported a sane immigration policy that would not have entailed mass deportations of the sort that would be impractical and cruel but which, for some reason, were seen as sensible by the GOP's right wing. In a similar vein, McCain originally opposed the Bush administration tax cuts that have produced a massive deficit in a time of war and a sheer inability to do what the government is supposed to do, such as maintain the infrastructure.
McCain has since altered those positions. He has modified his immigration proposal and reversed himself on taxes. In some cases -- as when he admitted to pandering about the Confederate flag during the 2000 South Carolina primary -- his confessions of error have been bracing. But the more recent reversals have gone far enough. McCain stands in mortal peril of becoming someone else -- which is to say anyone else.
McCain's true virtue is that he is a lousy politician. He is not a convincing liar, and when he adopts positions that are not his own, they infect him, sapping him of what might be called integrity energy. This happened last year when McCain followed a script that had him inhabiting the political body of your average Republican county chairman. This was supposed to be the new McCain, and I was told by one of his closest associates to mourn the McCain I had known -- the feisty, truth-telling insurgent -- and welcome a man so conventionally Republican that one of his speeches could, when insomnia strikes, take the place of two Ambien tablets. It nearly finished him off.
At the moment, Barack Obama is collecting the votes of independents whom McCain has cherished and is riding a wave that just could deposit him at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. So McCain is being pressured to solidify the Republican base, make nice to Rush and the others, and patch things up with the Christian right. A touch of pandering would be forgivable. But more than what is absolutely necessary would be both politically unwise and, really, a tad sickening.
If Obama is the Democratic nominee and McCain the Republican one, the contest will pit a candidate who is what he is against a candidate who is what he has become. Obama is the natural, a politician of enormous gifts. But he is untested, a prodigy who emits puffs of aspirations and has not yet been forced to make painful decisions based on principle.
McCain, in contrast, is storied precisely because he has staked his life on his principles. As a prisoner of war, he turned down freedom -- and a respite from torture -- because it was not his turn to be released. He is an affable man of zealous, unbending beliefs. I am not sure if such obstinacy is a desired presidential trait. I am sure, though, that he -- like Obama or Hillary Clinton in their own (demographic) ways -- is sui generis. There is no one quite like him.
For McCain to attempt to appease his right-wing critics would vitiate the main plank in his platform: his persona. He has already tarnished his image a bit by misstating Mitt Romney's position on Iraq, and now he would appear as just another political opportunist if he became more conservative than thou. It's not just that his admirers would not like the new John McCain for it. Most important, neither would the old John McCain.
My Feb. 5 column was critical of Hillary Clinton for supporting a bill to make flag burning illegal. I have since learned from a reader that Barack Obama also supported that bill.