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McCain as Messiah

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

John McCain is no silver-tongued orator, as he proved in St. Paul, but it's hard not to be stirred when he speaks of wanting only to serve a cause greater than himself -- until you take a closer look and see that he's running one of the most egocentric presidential campaigns in memory.

Not that Barack Obama lacks a healthy opinion of himself, mind you. And no one wants the next president to be paralyzed with insecurity, or to doubt, even for a minute, that he's the right man for the job. But after ridiculing Obama as a preening celebrity, if not a self-proclaimed messiah, McCain is campaigning on a platform that can be summed up in three words: me, me, me.

Much has been made of the fact that he's a Republican running on a pledge to clean up the intolerable, unforgivable mess created over the past eight years by a Republican president -- and, for much of that time, a Republican-controlled Congress in which McCain himself had great power and influence. It's amusing to listen to a man in his fourth term in the Senate (after two terms in the House) rail against evil "Washington," as if he weren't one of this modern-day Sodom's most prominent denizens.

There has been less comment, however, on the extent to which McCain rejects not only his party's record but also important tenets of its stated philosophy. He's a Republican who doesn't entirely believe in modern Republicanism.

"We oppose amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, the GOP platform says. "The rule of law suffers if government policies encourage or reward illegal activity." Yet McCain co-authored the ill-fated immigration reform bill that would have granted de facto amnesty to millions who are in this country without the proper papers.

"Republicans caution against the doomsday climate change scenarios peddled by the aficionados of centralized command-and-control government," the platform says. McCain is with his party on the issue of offshore drilling -- there was a surreal moment in St. Paul when delegates were actually chanting "drill, baby, drill" -- but he has tried his best to sound more like a Democrat in acknowledging the urgency of taking measures to ameliorate global warming.

On abortion, the platform is uncompromisingly pro-life and mentions no exceptions for rape or incest; McCain believes there should indeed be exceptions. On embryonic stem-cell research, the platform says no; McCain says yes.

I'm not being disingenuous. I know that party platforms aren't as important as they once were. But McCain's apostasy on these hot-button issues has to be considered alongside the stunning charges he leveled against his own party in his acceptance speech. "We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us," he said. "We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption. . . . We lost their trust when we valued our power over our principles."

I can't argue with any of that. Those sound like great reasons to throw the Republicans out of town and give Democrats a chance to lead. But John McCain is arguing that he should be elected in spite of his party's many failures because, well, he's John McCain. He's special.

"I'm not running for president because I think I'm blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need," McCain said in accepting the nomination. But this line -- which I took as a continuation of his attempt to paint Obama as some kind of self-proclaimed Chosen One -- came right after a lengthy recounting of the horrors McCain lived through as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In effect, he had used his personal experience to anoint himself.

McCain's speech offered hardly anything in terms of policy. At one point, he mentioned three "ordinary" families by name and spoke of their travails -- and it was no coincidence that they happened to live in Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, states that McCain would like to steal from the Democrats this year. But he offered no specifics on how the federal government under a McCain administration would make these families' lives one bit better. He pledged only that he, personally, would "fight" for them.

McCain and his campaign aides are right when they insinuate that one candidate is acting as if he thinks voters should accept him, on faith, as their political messiah. They're just trying to make fun of the wrong one.

The writer will answer questions at noon today at www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address iseugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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