McCain's Supposed Former Civility

By Daniel Larison

Joe Conason and David Ignatius are just two of the many observers expressing disbelief at McCain's alleged transformation from fabled truth-telling man of honor to the candidate he is today, all of which is premised on the bizarre assumption that McCain was once a civil, respectful politician in the past and is now throwing that away in pursuit of power.  The most remarkable line comes from Ignatius' column:

What's damaging the McCain campaign now, I suspect, is that this fiercely independent man is trying to please other people -- especially a Republican leadership that doesn't really trust him.

Of course, the "fiercely independent" McCain spent the bulk of 1999 and the early months of 2000 (and many years after that) trying to please other people. The difference then was that Ignatius and other members of the Washington press corps were the ones he was trying to please and unironically, accurately referred to members of the media as his base.  During the 2000 campaign, he referred to the GOP establishment as the "evil empire," which seemed perfectly fair and satisfactory to his boosters in the press because they thought this was simply a description of reality and not a slur.  Pretty much every "maverick" episode in McCain's career has involved staking out a position in opposition to his party in the interests of attracting good press and cultivating a reputation as one of the "good" Republicans--the "noble, tolerant" McCain that Conason refers to in his piece--and he has done this by adopting a haughty, self-righteous tone as a champion of reform fighting against the forces of corruption (campaign finance) and bigotry (immigration "reform") within his own party.  By endorsing the worst prejudices about his party held by his party's political opponents (while enabling some of their genuinely worst attributes in his warmongering), he became renowned for his integrity, just as Republicans have been lauding Joe Lieberman for his character and courage for denouncing liberals, his own party and that party's nominee in terms that perfectly fit GOP talking points.

Implicit in this self-construction has been the claim that he is one of the reasonable few keeping the irrational masses on the right at bay, and he has built up enough credit with journalists over the years that he can align himself with the worst of the administration's policies on Iraq and immigration and still be thought of as different from Bush.  Indeed, to the extent that his agreement with the administration on many major policies is acknowledged, it is usually framed as part of a story of how the "real" McCain lost his way in trying to satisfy his party, but these accounts often hold out the hope that the "real" McCain might still make a comeback before the end.  People will talk about McCain's poor relations with conservatives and the party leadership as if he had nothing to do with causing them, and as if he had never launched an unfair or disreputable attack on an opponent or another person in his life, when the creation of his "maverick" image has been founded on portraying members of his party and the conservative movement according to the worst stereotypes and exploiting his opposition to these strawman positions as proof of his political courage.  That he now approves of taking the so-called "low road" against Obama is nothing new.  Indeed, by comparison with the treatment of some of McCain's other opponents in policy debates, Obama is still being treated pretty easily.

Cross-posted at Eunomia