To my pleasant surprise, the media did finally pick up on McCain's flip-flopping. It may have been the remark about "voting with Bush 90% of the time" combined with the public perception that McCain did once oppose Bush on a number of key issues -- up until the drumbeat for the 2004 election, when it became apparent that he intended to be Bush's successor.
Presumably, that was the point where he started consulting with Republican strategy people and they cooked up the "new McCain": the one that has dismissed or snowjobbed every apparent difference between himself and the incumbent. "Flip-flop" doesn't get across what's most pathetic about our "reformed maverick." But it does imply it. And it's time to take the next step.
With both candidates billing themselves as tough-minded reformers, perhaps it's time to ask what is meant by having a tough mind. Because what we're really looking at here is a candidate who can't control his platform in the face of pressure from party elites. And how can we trust a reformer who can't stand up to pressure? That's not just mendacity, it's weakness. And it belies the claim Mr. McCain routinely makes that, once elected, he would stand up to special interests and reform government.
How do we know this? Well, let's look at how our maverick has changed over the past five years:
- He used to call ethanol subsidies pork. Now they're practically the centerpiece of his energy plan. The Republicans like ethanol because they don't want to be seen as obstructing energy independence; but they know that ethanol is an accessory to a fossil fuel economy, not a transition out of one. Plus, tying alternative energy to ag-subsidies has a "culture war" valence that's a net-gain for Republican frames.
- He used to be against overturning Roe v. Wade. Now, maybe that was a crass political calculation before and he's reverting to his true positions -- we'll never know, because every policy he endorses is one he's "always believed in." Either way, much of McCain's "maverick" image came from the impression that he wasn't part of the Bush coalition. Remember when he criticized Jerry Falwell's "hateful philosophy"? That was a bit of political self-disclosure intended to score points with centrists, and now he's gone back on it. Why? Because Republican strategists know that without the Christian right firmly in pocket, their vote gets split and they lose. Once again, McCain bends.
- Torture. McCain used to oppose it on the grounds that having been a prisoner of war, he knows torture is an atrocity. Now, he's for it on the grounds that having been in Vietnam, he knows torture is necessary. This is, in many ways, the worst of his reversals - because "wizened former POW" is such a central part of his image. If we can't trust him to hold his shit together on something he experienced first-hand, can we really expect him to "veto the first big pork bill that crosses his desk"? What reason do we have to believe that he won't abandon ship as he's done with every other of his issues so far?
Again, maybe he was insincere about his position to begin with. But it's no better if he wasn't - in fact, it's worse. We expect politicians to fuzz the line between their own grandiose views and what can actually get done on the Hill. But nobody wants a weak President. And if we assume - charitably as you like - that McCain is a "straight talker" who speaks his unvarnished opinions, then that's what we're looking at: someone who can't hold his platform together during a campaign.
Think of it this way: he's under less pressure right now than he'll be if he gets elected. Imagine how he'll crack when he's faced with hard, pragmatic choices and every special interest in the country is clamoring for his ear. Is this a man voters can reasonably expect to deliver reform?