Friday, May 16, 2008
Reading coverage of the presidential race, I think perhaps I may be the one of the few remaining people on the planet that remember that George W. Bush ran for the presidency, in 2000, on a theme of being a bipartisan who would "change the tone" in Washington.
This was dutifully reported by, well, everyone. We were told that George W. Bush was terribly bipartisan as governor of Texas. Republican cronies were marched up in front of the cameras to tell us that he was great at working across the aisle, blah blah blah.
Coupled with these constant assertions of bipartisanship and CEO acumen was the campaign theme of "compassionate" conservatism: conservatism tempered with sympathy for the poor, and the sick, and the elderly, and minorities, and schoolchildren, and all those other groups of Americans that conservatism normally couldn't be bothered with (after all, they own very little stock), so all his handlers and speechwriters needed to make up a new word for Bush's supposed new brand of conservatism, to sort of cram the notion of basic human empathy and decentness into it somewhere. This, too, was roundly applauded by reporters and pundits in spite of absolutely no actual evidence that anyone anywhere meant a word of it, and considerable evidence that they did not.
The George W. Bush campaign schtick was bipartisanship and moderation, and a very, very large part of the reason he won the presidency over Al Gore was because a fawning press bought it all hook, line and sinker -- or at least dutifully reported it as such. We weren't supposed to look at his record, or the records of those he surrounded himself with, only his statements -- and we weren't supposed to look at his statements either, only the ones his handlers wanted us to look at.
Fast forward eight years later. From John McCain's speech Thursday:
If I am elected President, I will work with anyone who sincerely wants to get this country moving again. I will listen to any idea that is offered in good faith and intended to help solve our problems, not make them worse. I will seek the counsel of members of Congress from both parties in forming government policy before I ask them to support it. I will ask Democrats to serve in my administration. [...] I'm not interested in partisanship that serves no other purpose than to gain a temporary advantage over our opponents. This mindless, paralyzing rancor must come to an end.
Noble if not entirely original thoughts, and ones we have been exposed to as a central mavericky theme of his mavericky, mavericky campaign. What we are to take from John McCain, in this and a hundred other speeches, is that he's yet again a different kind of conservative, one willing to set partisanship aside and work across the aisle, one willing to temper his hard-right conservatism with compassion.
The problem, once again, is that there's very little to suggest that's anything more than rhetoric, and there's a whole lot of history suggesting it's complete bunk. Time and time again, McCain talks about bipartisanship or moderation, then goes back to vote for the hardline conservative position. Supreme Court justices? Government corruption and accountability? Corruption in Iraq? Domestic programs? The economy? Immigration? Healthcare? Tax policy? Nearly straight-party-line principles, matching to whatever the GOP has declared the "correct" position.
Even on his signature recent "mavericky" issue -- that prisoners in U.S. custody should not be tortured, because of, you know, basic freaking human decency -- his rhetoric doesn't match his votes. In his actual day job as Senator, he's carved out exception after exception to his assertion that torture is wrong, and it hardly ever gets a peep of press. A supposed avid supporter of the troops, at the moment he is trying to strip proposed benefits from American veterans, under the premise that it is nothing but a frivolous expense (unlike the rest of the war, which he has supported at every turn -- only angry that more was not done, not less.)
How often, during the Bush administration, has McCain voted against the interests of the most hardcore partisans of his party? Almost never. Even his few once-sparkling bipartisan mavericky efforts, like McCain-Feingold, are noteworthy because in practice they were always rare and have since dwindled into near nonexistence; his previous obsession with campaign finance reform is especially informative, given how (ahem) "unusual" his campaign finance decisions have been during this campaign. His position on ANWR continues so far as one noteworthy exception -- for which McCain is being well and truly hammered -- but it would be implausible to deny that the far more consistent theme of his presidential campaign has been, on issue after issue after issue, a steady migration to the positions of the hard right, even going against his own past rhetoric or, in the case of immigration reform, his very own previously proposed bill.
His advisory staff, during the campaign, has not been bipartisan in the slightest (unless you're counting petulant ex-Dem Joe Lieberman) but has instead been staffed with the most conservative, neoconservative and hard-right figures available. McCain isn't just Bushlike in his foreign policy -- he is even more explicitly hawkish. McCain once shunned the worst of the religious right: now not only has he made up, he vigorously courts them. McCain once had some modest degree of skepticism for hyperconservative tax policies; now he treats them as holy writ.
But once again, we get to hear speeches and reporting and punditry and testimonials about how this brand of lifelong hard-right conservatism is different from all the others before it, and how this lifelong Republican candidate wants to unite, not divide, and how this election really isn't like all the others, all of this is force-fed down our media-consuming gullets like we are geese being prepared for the axe. The political coverage is all so intently focused on horserace analysis and meta-analysis, endlessly discussing how issue X plays to demographic Y, or why event 3,921 is going to cost N points among voters who drink apple juice on Wednesdays, that there will be almost no moments left to look at the actual issues, or actual records, or determine how the two candidates are actually different, or even whether or not either of them are completely pulling our legs about the whole thing.
No, Republican John McCain wants to change the tone in Washington. Hard-right conservative John McCain wants to unite, not divide. McCain wants to bring the grownups back to government. McCain wants to work across the aisle, so long as it is not on any issue of foreign policy, or taxes, or the Supreme Court, or domestic spending, or social issues or war or the U.N. or environmental policy or blah-blah-freakin-blah. And we're all going to play this game yet again because that's how the game is set up. Everybody gets a turn in front of the cameras to say what the sky on their planet looks like, and then we all vote on what imaginary color would be prettiest, and then when we wake up after the election, glory be, the sky is still the same shade as always.
I do not know which is worse: the overarching political and media presumption that we Americans as a collective population are all stupid as dirt, or the possibility that we really might be.
Some of us still fall for Nigerian money laundering schemes. Some of us believe they can pick lottery numbers. Some of us just want to be fooled all the time.