WHICH MCCAIN IS...

WHICH MCCAIN IS WHICH? Jon Chait has responded to my criticisms of his liberal McCain meme. As befits two folks who disagree, he found my rebuttal unconvincing, and I found his defense similarly so. Reading Chait, it seems that his case rests on two primary pieces of evidence: 1) McCain felt out a party switch in 2001-2002. 2) McCain was notably liberal during those years. And that's true enough. Since Chait doesn't like ACU rankings (and he accuses me of cherry-picking Bush's liberalism, which, in the context of McCain's "progressivism," was precisely my point), we can look at The National Journal's scores, which shows a post-2000 election tumble for McCain, who goes from around 70 percent conservative in the years preceding (and 80 percent a few years before that), to 60 percent or so in the years after. Which may prove that Garance is onto something here...

To me, this tells a story of pique and opportunism: the Republican Party rejected John McCain, smeared him, humiliated him. In the years immediately following, McCain rebelled against his attackers, even testing out a switch to the Democratic Party. All the better to build his emerging media rep as a courageous maverick and to take vengeance on those who beat him. During that period, he supported various Democratic measures, most of them tepid offerings that a party with only one branch of government thought broadly appealing enough that they might pass the House and compel Bush's signature. McCain eventually decided against that strategy and began determinedly rebuilding his bridges. Now that he's back in the fold, accepted again, he's promising to sponsor the codification of tax cuts he once voted against, voicing support for the reprehensible South Dakota abortion ban, slavishly praising George W. Bush, seeking rapprochement with the Christian Right, etc, etc. I can only wonder what will happen if they actually elect him president.

To me, McCain's record shows a guy largely free of core ideology. When that cuts in a liberal direction, as it did after 2000, it's bracing. When it darts to the right, as it often has, it's somewhat less so. McCain may muse that his daughter should be able to decide her reproductive future, but he endorsed South Dakota's law ensuring that no other women would enjoy the same freedom. (Chait didn't address the abortion issue, but it's really rather key. Scott Lemieux has the definitive post on it, and I'd love to see a rebuttal.) McCain will drift toward the path of popularity and success. Were this the 1980s, and he were facing a Democratic Congress, he might be a safe bet on the strength of his lets-make-a-deal instincts. But there is no Democratic Congress. No Democratic House, no Democratic Senate. So McCain will be hemmed in by his right flank, a position he's currently proving himself perfectly comfortable in. In that context, there is no promise of his liberalism, and no check against his conservatism. And that's not a state of affairs I feel comfortable giving one ounce of support to.

--Ezra Klein

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