McCain and His Motives.

Remember when we all thought John McCain was a steadfastly principled man who didn't play that nasty political game? Yeah, I know – it seems like so long ago. But let's take a gander at what he's saying in a new radio ad. "President Obama is leading an extreme left-wing crusade to bankrupt America," McCain tells his constituents. "I stand in his way every day."

This isn't just standard partisan boilerplate. McCain's argument here is not that Obama's misguided policies are bankrupting America, but that Obama is intentionally trying to bankrupt America. Apart from the obvious question – wouldn't bankrupting America be bad politics for him? – this kind of assertion is not just dangerous, it's positively infantile. When you say that your opponent is not just wrong, or operating from questionable motives, but is actively trying to destroy the country, you’ve announced that you have no interest in anything resembling a reasonable debate.

As I've noted before, there were few people in America who wrote more critical words of George W. Bush over his eight years in office than I did. But neither I nor anyone I know believed that Bush was intentionally trying to destroy the country. He was deluded about a lot of things, and wrong about a lot of things, and willfully closed his eyes to a lot of things, but he didn't actually intend for his policies to do harm. Bush would have been pleased as punch if his tax cuts for the wealthy brought on a new era of boundless prosperity for all. He would have been overjoyed if invading Iraq had quickly spread democracy across the Middle East, without any deaths of American servicemembers. He would have been happy as a clam if torturing some suspected terrorists would have immediately resulted in the complete dismantling of al-Qaeda. These things didn't happen, but it wasn't because Bush didn't want them to.

Politics ain't beanbag, as the saying goes, so we always expect some hyperbole. But as the Republican party becomes more defined by its extreme elements, those whose views may have been a bit more sane begin getting pulled to the outer edges, not just ideologically, but rhetorically as well. McCain is facing a potential primary challenge from former congressman J.D. Hayworth, an erstwhile buddy of lobbyist/felon Jack Abramoff and experienced rouser of rabble. The senator seems to have decided that the way to fend off the barbarians to his right is to embrace their tactics.

During the early days of the 2008 campaign, McCain's admirers in the press used to write that while McCain sometimes did things that politicians do -- like beg donors for money, switch positions for political expediency, and engage in dishonest attacks on his opponents -- he was so honorable that it just tore him up inside. While they saw other politicians as craven and opportunistic, they always assumed that McCain's motives were pure. I wonder if any of them still believe that?

--Paul Waldman

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