A Partisan in Maverick's Clothing

By Matthew Yglesias
Tuesday, September 2, 2008; 5:02 PM

The idea that John McCain's problems stem from some paradoxical downside to his "maverick" style and record of post-partisanship (Matthew Continetti, "Sounds Nice, But Will It Get Votes?") is the sort of clever conceit on which the punditry business is founded. But a much simpler explanation is at hand -- having spent the first four years of the Bush administration remaking himself as an independent-minded maverick, McCain has spent the past four years remaking himself as an orthodox Republican and now finds himself running for president at a time when his party is deeply unpopular.

As Continetti points out, it's true that McCain worked with Ted Kennedy to reform America's dysfunctional immigration policy. But during the primaries McCain disavowed the bill they coauthored, caving in to the GOP's anti-immigration base. Continetti also notes that McCain worked with Tom Daschle on anti-tobacco legislation in the 1990s. But now McCain opposes cigarette tax increases (which he once favored) and won't commit to supporting a bill giving the FDA the regulatory authority that he and Daschle sought years ago. Another example of McCain's supposed post-partisanship is his vote with John Kerry against the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, but he now favors extending them and adding huge new regressive tax cuts to the mix. The idea that the Democrats McCain once worked with will remain loyal to him even as he abandons the positions that were the basis of their collaboration is bizarre.

Another supposed example of McCain's independent streak is his decision to anoint the obscure and obviously unqualified Gov. Sarah Palin as his party's vice presidential nominee. But his choice only underscores the extent to which the maverick shtick has been denuded of any real content. Serious consideration was given to much more experienced individuals, including Tom Ridge, Joe Lieberman and Kay Bailey Hutchison, any of whom would have been a more credible governing partner. None were chosen, however, out of fealty to Republican orthodoxy on abortion rights issues. Well-qualified conservative Republicans such as Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney were also rejected, however, because the McCain campaign recognizes that the maverick image is integral to his political appeal. Thus they settled on Palin, who's both a maverick and a hard-right conservative with down-the-line orthodox views on every issue under the sun. Never mind that she's been governor for just 18 months of a state with a smaller population than Austin, Texas, or Jefferson County, Ky., and whose own anti-establishment credentials are thin -- she is the subject of an active abuse of power investigation and used to head a 527 called "Ted Stevens Excellence in Public Service, Inc.", the type of rule-bending fundraising group McCain has fought to corral.

Continetti's idea of McCain as a true post-partisan glosses over other character attributes that won't help his candidacy -- namely a tendency toward thrill-seeking (he enjoys placing large wagers on the bad-odds bets in the game of craps) and a personality that reveals the extent to which one man's maverick is another man's erratic decision-maker. Watching McCain spend the past few years abandoning the ideological heresies he racked up a few years earlier, his spell as a moderate Republican in the early Bush years looks less like a conversion than a fit of pique. A conservative Republican found himself beaten in the 2000 primary by an establishment-backed candidate and then spent years thumbing his nose as the establishment that beat him. But once he realized that this wasn't a path that led to the White House, he returned to his orthodox roots, literally embracing Bush and working hard to secure his re-election, and re-baptizing himself in the church of tax cuts. McCain's even gone so far as to hire Tucker Eskew, the hack Republican operative who was in charge of smearing him back in the 2000 South Carolina primary.

Rather than being the victim of his own post-partisanship, as Continetti argues, today McCain is in a downward spiral of ever-intensifying right-wingery even at a time when the American right has rarely been less popular. Many expected him to try to pull the plane up once the primaries were over, but the decision to re-re-invent himself is not so easily undone. For one thing, three ideological makeovers in ten years might be too much even for McCain's most credulous fans in the press. But beyond that, the more he damages his maverick brand the more McCain comes to depend on the conservative establishment -- on the Bush bundlers, on the dirty energy interests, on the Christian right activists he once derided as agents of intolerance -- an establishment whose current bad reputation necessitates a campaign strategy grounded in Eskew-style smear-merchant tactics. What's more, there's a chance it could work. But for the moment, the odds don't look good -- the public's in the mood for change, and McCain long ago got off the path where he could credibly offer it.

Matthew Yglesias is senior editor at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and blogs at

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