Features » June 18, 2008
Dismantling the Myth of McCain
How the Republican senator’s maverick image is a sham
When McCain could have used his moral weight as a torture victim to stand up to Bush's policies, he did so only rhetorically, eventually agreeing to legislation that still permitted waterboarding.
As the presidential race shifts into summer gear, Democrats have a McCain problem. And John McCain has a Bush problem – or at least Democrats hope he will.
Judging from opinion polls about the president and the direction the country is going, if George W. Bush were on the ballot this fall, Democrats would win the presidency. Even an unspecified Democrat running against a generic Republican would win handily.
But with Sen. Barack Obama facing Sen. McCain, early summer polls show the race gets much tighter, with the lead over McCain for the real Democratic candidate running about 10 points less than for the generic.
McCain’s strength stems from his media-fostered image as a straight-talking maverick reformer and former prisoner of war. But the downside for McCain is that many Republicans distrust him, with roughly a quarter of Republicans withholding votes from him even in late primaries.
With his eyes on the presidential race, McCain has spent the past few years cultivating the Right, most famously reconciling with the Rev. Jerry Falwell in 2006, despite having denounced him and televangelist Pat Robertson in 2000 as “agents of intolerance.”
Even more compelling visually is the 2004 picture of “The Hug” – McCain throwing his arms around President Bush and leaning against the president’s chest with a sheepish smile on his face, as Bush waves to a crowd. In February, Bush gave McCain his political embrace, declaring him a “true conservative.”
So, who is “the real McCain”? (Incidentally, the title of a new book by journalist Cliff Schechter.) The record shows McCain to be a strongly pro-business, anti-government, hawkish neoconservative who has increasingly supported many right-wing evangelical causes (such as teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution).
Yet at times he has alienated parts of the Republican Right, mainly on issues in which McCain’s position safely reflected strong majorities of public opinion, as journalists David Brock and Paul Waldman argue in Free Ride: John McCain and the Media.
McCain won his reformer credentials by co-sponsoring legislation with progressive Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) that, in 2002, banned soft money contributions to political parties. The long fight for the bill won McCain adulation in the press. But ultimately, it didn’t keep soft money out of politics, and some conservatives believed it was more likely to hurt Democrats than Republicans.
By 2006, as Schechter reports, McCain was backing away from legislation for federal election public financing that he had once supported.
By then, McCain had won the image he needed as a clean-politics reformer to expunge the effects of his having been named in 1991 as one of the “Keating Five” – senators who had received financial favors from, and then tried to help, fraudulent savings and loan operator Charles Keating.
Yet his image as a clean politician above the political swamp of Washington politics is most belied by his long and deep connections with corporate lobbyists.
According to the anti-McCain website Progressive Media USA, McCain had at least 118 lobbyists running his campaign, including campaign manager Rick Davis – who lobbied for major telecommunications companies (for whom McCain has often intervened legislatively) – and senior adviser Charles Black – who was registered as a lobbyist for right-wing guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi of Angola and such dictators as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire.
In May, the campaign dismissed several lobbyists and promulgated new rules for campaign workers. But McCain’s reliance on corporate special interest lobbyists is so pervasive that his personal image will continue to suffer.
Brock and Waldman argue, however, that the myth of McCain has two other founding pillars: his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and his cultivation of the press. McCain is sure to continue using his time in prison for political advantage. But when he had the chance to use his moral weight as a victim of torture to stand up to Bush’s policies, he did so only rhetorically, eventually agreeing to legislation that still permitted techniques such as waterboarding.
The mass media can be fickle, but, initially, McCain has gotten a pass from many high-profile reporters. As Brock and Waldman note, McCain has carefully cultivated relationships with the press, providing unusually open access and surprising candor – or at least the appearance of candor.
However, as recounted by Schechter, as well as Brock and Waldman, some reporters have noted the occasional flare-ups of McCain’s remarkably mean temper in dealing with colleagues and even his wife. And McCain’s shining armor, which has blinded many reporters, is increasingly tarnished by his associations with right-wing evangelical supporters, like the Rev. Rod Paisley and the Rev. John Hagee, who preached that Hitler’s genocide of the Jews was simply part of God’s plan.
There’s also a long history of McCain’s shifts to the right and his flip-flops. He moved from rejecting the repeal of Roe v. Wade to adopting an extreme opposition to abortion rights, and from opposing Bush’s initial tax cuts for the rich to making permanent extension of those cuts the centerpiece of his economic policy. Once lauded for teaming with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) to promote comprehensive immigration reform (favored by Bush and many business interests), McCain now promotes border security to cater to the anti-immigrant Right.
McCain’s rhetoric and reality
As the myth of McCain comes into question, so might voters’ evaluations of the man and his character: Voters’ opinions of McCain became less favorable over the late spring, according to recent Pew Research Center polling. But so far, those who view him unfavorably do so primarily because of his stance on issues, not for personal factors. (By contrast, Pew reports, a larger share of negative reaction to Obama is related to “the kind of person he is,” not his position on issues.)
At this point, Pew reports, only 40 percent of independent voters think McCain will continue Bush’s policies.
But Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling group, finds that 56 percent of voters interviewed agreed that Obama represents change and that McCain would continue Bush’s policies, and said that fact would influence them to favor Obama. (It was the most influential of several definitions of the contest the group tested.)
In other words, there’s potential to make a powerful case that McCain represents a third Bush term. After all, according to Congressional Quarterly, McCain voted with Bush 100 percent of the time so far this year, 95 percent of the time in 2007, and around 90 percent since Bush took office.
First, there’s McCain’s pledge – from which he is trying to retreat – to continue Bush’s war in Iraq, with occupying forces for 100 years if necessary.
Second, there’s a sharp foreign policy choice between Obama’s aggressive diplomacy and McCain’s military aggression (“Bomb, bomb, bomb – bomb, bomb Iran”). Even conservative Pat Buchanan writes that McCain “will make [Vice President Dick] Cheney look like Gandhi.” And Slate’s Fred Kaplan concludes that McCain’s approach to North Korea is worse than Bush’s.
Third, there’s McCain’s plan to continue Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, which could otherwise be used to fund needed policies to help working- and middle-class families. McCain’s chief economic adviser is former far-right Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), who recently lobbied on mortgage legislation for the hard-hit subprime speculator, Swiss-based bank UBS. Gramm signals that McCain will continue Bush’s policies of non-regulation of business and the financial sector. And McCain has a consistent record of opposing minimum-wage increases and favoring measures that weaken unions.
Fourth, McCain’s healthcare proposal is much like Bush’s (just as McCain and Bush both opposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and promoted Health Savings Accounts that mainly benefit the rich and healthy). Proposed tax code changes could lead many businesses to stop providing health insurance, forcing individuals to shop for insurance with a tax credit covering only half the cost of the average policy. Insurers would not have to cover people with pre-existing health problems (and could escape all state laws that set quality standards). Under McCain’s plan, most people will find it harder and more expensive to get insurance.
Fifth, like Bush, who met a firestorm of public opposition, McCain wants to privatize Social Security by creating personal, private accounts. With economic insecurity rising, McCain’s revival of Bush’s folly is likely to backfire politically, especially with older voters who might otherwise hesitate to vote for Obama.
Even on global warming – one of the few issues McCain claims independence and moderation compared to Bush – he refused to support his buddy Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (I-Conn.) climate change bill because its subsidies for nuclear power weren’t big enough (though McCain opposes subsidies for alternatives, such as wind).
Overall, McCain would try to move the country in the same direction most voters now think is wrong. But will they understand that? The Obama campaign, as well as the Democratic National Committee, regularly tries to identify McCain’s election as a third term for Bush. But there’s a long way to go in dismantling the myth of McCain “The Maverick” and in spelling out how much like Bush – and how unlike what most people say they want – McCain’s proposals are.
Little help from his friends
Parallel to the official campaigns, independent efforts are underway to define McCain as more Bush – or worse.
In March, without an endorsed candidate, the AFL-CIO started a McCain Revealed campaign. By June, the union had distributed more than 1 million leaflets related to McCain’s record to its members, and targeted key states and swing voters.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other unions have mounted campaigns for healthcare reform that criticize McCain’s proposals. USAction, a national organization of statewide citizen groups, is focused on opposing the war in Iraq and advocating for national health insurance.
On the Web or in limited television buys, MoveOn.org, Brave New Films and other groups have produced videos linking Bush and McCain. One MoveOn ad shows the two politicians acting and talking similarly to the accompaniment of music from the 1960s “The Patty Duke Show” (“You can lose your mind, when cousins are two of a kind”).
But the big independent voter mobilization and advertising efforts of the past two elections – identified as 527 or 501(c)(4) groups, depending on their tax status – have not materialized.
Obama finance chair Penny Pritzker has told major Democratic donors not to fund these groups, and campaign spokesman Bill Burton confirmed to Politico.com that the campaign’s strategy is to control funds, message and advertising, much in keeping with Obama’s promise of a new kind of politics.
Although McCain has weakly decried the influence of 527 and other groups, he has said there’s little he can do about them. And major backers of the 2004 Swift Boat campaign have already vowed to raise $250 million to “attack Obama viciously.”
But even before Pritzker’s intervention, many progressive groups reported having a hard time raising money for their independent critiques of McCain, issue advocacy, advertising and coordination of efforts – despite early big contributions from investor George Soros and SEIU, to the Fund for America, which had hoped to raise $100 million to distribute to groups such as Campaign to Defend America, Progressive Media USA and America Votes.
“Long before the flap over whether the Obama campaign supported outside groups getting money, money wasn’t flowing,” says USAction Executive Director Jeff Blum. “The donor community has been frozen by the intensity, length and fascination of the primary.”
But he adds, “when the right-wing attack machine moves on to Barack, and that time is coming soon, I hope our side is in a position to respond independently, just as they attack independently.”
Independent groups supporting Democrats or progressive issues understand why the Obama campaign, with its fundraising success, wants to control the money and message. But they hope Obama’s strategists will eventually, if privately, recognize the role for independents.
“I can’t fathom that they won’t,” says longtime political strategist Don Rose. “They can play an important role. You want to control it as much as you can, but there are spots you want out that don’t say, ‘I approve of this message.’ ”
“You want to have many voices saying, more or less, the same thing about McCain,” argues USAction Program Director Alan Charney. “The Obama campaign is putting out more and more how close McCain is to Bush. It helps when other groups say the same, creating an echo chamber.”
But linking McCain to Bush’s failed and unpopular policies will not work without a “populist, aspirational message,” Blum says. “People want to know what you’re for and not just what you’re against. Bush personifies what a lot of people don’t like. You can establish McCain is a third Bush term and that may open the door, but to close the deal, you have to talk about what you’re for.”
For Obama, that means making his message of hope more concrete and meaningful for working-class and middle-income voters. And for that, he may need a little help from his friends.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.