Despite my apathy over whether Obama or McCain became the next American President, I do have a few thoughts. Or maybe just one thought with a few facets. I feel kind of bad for John McCain.
To appreciate the raw deal he was dealt by his own party, you need to go back more than eight years to the primaries in 2000, when the Republicans chose their man to run against Al Gore. McCain was enjoying good numbers and the Republicans were faced with a choice between a very electable McCain or a more “conservative” (in the modern, not-at-all-conservative sense of the word) Bush. Then the classic Karl Rovian dirty politics began, and McCain never recovered. From the very start Bush demonstrated the complete lack of ethics that marks everything he does.
The 2000 presidential election was very close (so close, in fact, that there should have been a runoff, but that’s another story), but it is likely that McCain would have fared better — and required fewer dirty tricks. Imagine the last eight years with McCain instead of Dubya!
Well, it was Dubya we got and government without etihcs and McCain plugging away in the senate, while his party became steadily less popular. Not even a historic national crisis (the easiest time to be president) was enough to buoy Dubya’s ratings for long. 2008 arrived, and found the Republicans casting about for the best way to salvage a bad situation.
They faced several problems. The president is so universally reviled that anyone who had worked with him was sure to pick up his stink. McCain had in the past stood up to the administration — but not lately. Still, he was less tainted than just about anyone else. Also, the religious conservatives, a key constituency for Republicans, were getting fed up with an administration that turned their backs on their core issues as soon as the votes were counted. The religious right was getting fed up with empty promises.
Finally, I suspect that there were many high up in the Republican party who saw the writing on the wall a long time ago. They were going to lose unless the Democrats blundered badly. (Hillary Clinton tried to help out, but even she wasn’t enough.) For these denizens of the smoke-filled rooms in Washington, the question became how to lose in the most productive manner. The formula was pretty easy in retrospect: throw McCain under the bus.
Facing not just a decisive loss but downright humiliation, the power brokers were not going to waste the career of a rising star, a potential candidate four or eight years down the road. This campaign was going to mark the end of a political career. So they let the old guy run. He wasn’t going to be a viable candidate next time around in any case. Then they saddled him with Sara Palin. Ordinarily that would be a shock, but it sure made the religious right happy (so I’m led to understand). When one of your core constituencies is tired of empty gestures, give them… a bigger, grander empty gesture than ever before! They were going to lose anyway, so the huge political liability she represented was irrelevant.
Once McCain and Palin lost big, even the idea of ‘maverickness’ would be undermined, which probably appealed to the entrenched power brokers as well.
McCain went out, campaigned, and in the very limited view I had of the campaign, on occasion looked like he would make a pretty good president. The powers that be couldn’t let him stray too far from the old party line, couldn’t let him be a real maverick (his main job was damage control, after all), so what we got was a watered-down version of the McCain that ran last time.
And now John McCain will fade into the twilight. There will be a book or two, appearances on Sunday-morning talk shows and so forth, but his days as a contender are over. He has a lot to thank his party for; he’s had a long and productive career at the highest level of politics. I have to wonder, though, if he harbors a little bitterness as well. Maybe now he can be a maverick.