Campaigns/Elections

"Would I Stay True if…My Personal Ambitions Seemed… Achievable?"

McCain warned us six years ago that he might change if he ever got close to the White House

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In 1998, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) faced a tough re-election fight from a Republican congressman named Mark Neumann. Feingold, co-author of the eventually successful (in passage, not in impact) Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, decided to put his soft money where his mouth was, refusing any of the then-legal stuff to be spent on his campaign, even while outside groups contributed $2 million in soft money for Neumann. After sweating bullets, Feingold eked out a win by less than 40,000 votes.

This demonstration of principle over politics impressed the hell out of Feingold's campaign reform partner, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

"I thought about that experience when I decided that I would try to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2000," McCain wrote in his 2002 political memoir Worth the Fighting For. "I knew I was a long shot, and given the curious place I now occupied in the affections of much of the Republican establishment, and the causes I had come to be identified with, I didn't expect much help, financial or otherwise, from party regulars."

The rest of this revealing passage should be mandatory reading for every morning-after media weeper who frets about where "the real McCain" went in the fall of 2008: "I thought about Russ's principled risk in his reelection campaign and wondered if I would have the guts to protect my integrity even if it meant lengthening the odds against me. I didn't worry that I would betray my positions or myself as long as I remained a dark horse. But would I stay true if by some unexpected turn of events my personal ambitions seemed a little more achievable? There was no point in worrying about that, I decided. I was unlikely to get close enough to the prize where such temptations would become a concern."

The rich are indeed very different than you and me; rich politicians like McCain even more so. But how many grown-ups do you know who honestly don't know whether they would hold onto their principles if they got within shouting distance of a lifelong goal? That's not the worry of a settled man who automatically puts "country first"; it's the anxiety of an aging adolescent who knows too well the potential weakness of his knees.

The John McCain that the national press fell in love with (literally) back in 1999-2000 was a John McCain who knew he was going to lose to George W. Bush. The man was openly referring to Bush and the Repblican establishment that overwhelmingly backed the 41st president's son as "the Death Star," in a Republican primary. He called Christian conservatives "agents of intolerance," made speech-stifling (and GOP activist-handcuffing) campaign finance reform his central theme, and thundered against the "false front" of "national prosperity." Non-Republican reporters (including yours truly) might have eaten it up at the time, but it was a strategy designed explicitly for failure, and maybe a little longshot fun.

"My decisions about how I would try to win were made out of political necessity as much as principle," McCain wrote in Worth the Fighting For. He could afford to talk down Iowan ethanol, because he couldn't afford to campaign in Iowa (one of many strategies and political positions that changed between 1999 and 2007). Even his comparative lack of enthusiasm for tax cuts at the time was heavily influenced by political positioning, not necessarily philosophy. "Republican primaries had long featured a bidding war to see which candidate could promise the biggest tax cut," he wrote. "I chose to offer the smallest, targeted to middle- and lower-income families…. Lest anyone think my positions were brave, if self-defeating, honesty obliges me to note that every poll my campaign conducted (and we took as many as could afford) found greater support for paying down the debt than cutting taxes for upper-bracket incomes." Country first!

Above all, McCain campaigned on a promise to "always tell the truth," to avoid "pandering," and to elevate the tone of political discourse. "'Judge all candidates,' I asked [voters], 'by the example we set; by the way we conduct our campaigns; by the way we personally practice politics.'" In 2008, many former McCain supporters have judged him precisely on those criteria, and switched their support to Barack Obama.

Should we care that a politician has so profoundly changed his positions and tactics in an effort to actually win this time around? For me, part of the answer lies within that startling quote above: "[I] wondered if I would have the guts to protect my integrity."

Note how McCain almost sounds like a helpless bystander in that mini-sentence. It's as if campaign politics were a filthy river at flood tide; dip a toe and you're off in the muck. This helps explain both why McCain started getting swept off to "crazy base land" three years ago, and why his apologists in the media could still manage to absolve him of guilt for doing so. It's not the Great Man, they cried, it's that tawdry party beneath him.

But such apologia wears its fatal flaw on its sleeve. You can't be a Great Man on one hand and an unwitting victim on the other.

The tone and results of the McCain campaign cannot be blamed on conflicting advisers, or "crazy base" Republicans yanking their standard-bearer hither and yon. The man who has run such a lackluster, unconvincing, and uninspiring race in 2008 is the exact same guy who seemed so hopelessly interesting in 2000. The only difference is, this time he thought he could win.

When you lack core philosophical belief or interest of your own, stuff like policy positions and campaign strategy are just malleable means to an alluring end. The John McCain we've seen these past two months is, in many senses, the real real McCain: A guy who, just as he worried six years ago, yields to the "temptations" of seeing his "personal ambitions" come tantalizingly close to fruition. We are fortunate we can see him respond to such a test before holding the reins of ultimate power.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason, and author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.

NEXT: You Know, My Grandparents Used to Vote for Whoever Would Give Them a Ride to the Polls and a Turkey

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  1. You didn’t write a book about McCain did you? Jeeze, where can I buy it.

  2. My guess before reading: because the damn liberal socialist media is in the tank for Obama.

  3. Matt, I am second to no man in my disdain for McCain.

    But ease up, bro. He’s done. Beat. Toast. No more need to pile it on now.

  4. Wait for the Bradley Effect, Fluffy!

  5. The quote “[I] wondered if I would have the guts to protect my integrity” isn’t as damning as you suggest. Looking back, it looks like there are almost no examples of a president who actually has. Looking at these past examples, someone who is being honest with themselves must wonder exactly how corrupting this power must be.

    As for his main opponent, we know he certainly didn’t wait for the presidency to neglect his integrity… if any existed.

    This is why we must not vote for individuals, but vote for freedom.

  6. I think the post above is trying to suggest that because George Bush sucked so bad, we should continue voting for Republicans. Clever!

  7. He’s a politician. Can ANY politician hold onto his values and principles if he/she plans to win an election? Ah, dare to dream….

  8. Politics Before Principle

    = Pleonasm.

  9. Or: Silentz is golden.

  10. Get off your high horse, Matt. There are few things that I am dead certain about, but the corrupting influence of power and money deserves a slot alongside death and taxes. Considering politicians’ oversized egos and their good intentions (mostly), integrity will inevitably take a back seat to ambition and agenda as time passes. Guess that constant tension with the other party and other branches of govt is our only hope to maintain freedom, much less advance it… maybe not this year. Train wreck around the corner and the staff of “Reason” is “hoping” that somehow a one-party government will not do more damage than good. That’s a faith-based initiative we can all call bs on.

  11. Every day on the campaign trail is an opportunity to feel profoundly ashamed of yourself.

  12. The guy wants power so bad he can taste it. Of course he abandoned whatever vestigial connections he had to principles.

    -jcr

  13. David,

    Quit picking on Matt. He is being all MSM impartial 😉

  14. Your vote for Libertarian Presidential candidate Bob Barr is ‘guaranteed’ to improve America’s future! Also, if he wins at least 5% of the national popular vote in today’s election, his party’s Presidential campaign in 2012 can receive millions of dollars in voluntary taxpayer funds. It will also automatically qualify to be on all state ballots, thereby avoiding long and costly signature petition drives. So do the ‘most patriotic good’ with your vote, by helping build a 3rd major political party for America!!!

  15. Montag: ready to leave the country as you promised?

  16. Also, if he wins at least 5% of the national popular vote in today’s election, his party’s Presidential campaign in 2012 can receive millions of dollars in voluntary taxpayer funds.

    The IRS doesn’t even tally those checkboxes. Any candidate who accepts tax money for their campaign is no libertarian.

    -jcr

  17. Montag: ready to leave the country as you promised?

    Of course. If Bob Barr does not win I am outtahere! Even if he does win I am leaving.

    Already have my mobilization orders in hand.

  18. Wait… McCain isn’t perfect? This is truly shocking news, and – after I stop at the bookstore to buy The Shocking Truth About The Maverick by Matt Welch – I’m going to vote for Obama!.

    Because, I know he’s going to look out for everyone’s best interests, whether financial or Constitutional.

    Thanks for helping me with this decision, Reason! And, I urge everyone not to ever let them forget it.

  19. Should we be shocked that John McCain has so profoundly changed his positions and tactics in an effort to win?

    I would be shocked that he didn’t. He an every other mealy mouthed political hack.

    They all remind me of a girlfriend I used to have that lied constantly, even when there was zero benefit to lying.

    When confronted she’d invariably default to Which time was I lying? Then? Now?

    I finally dumped her body in the mulch pile.

  20. They all remind me of a girlfriend I used to have that lied constantly, even when there was zero benefit to lying.

    I dated her a few times too. She switches bodies with ease.

  21. Wouldn’t it be great if Obama and the Democrats handed out citizenship to all the illegals OLS hates?

  22. Montag: ready to leave the country as you promised?

    Of course. If Bob Barr does not win I am outtahere! Even if he does win I am leaving.

    If you follow up on this, you’re a better man than the liberals who promised to leave the country if Bush was elected.

    But…if you leave, is it military?; i.e. still relying on the U.S. gummint?

  23. But…if you leave, is it military?; i.e. still relying on the U.S. gummint?

    I trade my labor to the government for a salary and other benefits. You are not advocating conscripted slavery for a source government workers, are you? 😉

  24. She switches bodies with ease.

    Mulch has that regenerative effect. Been a lotta mulch deployed over the past two years.

  25. I dated her a few times too.

    I think I dated her after she had her sex change operation.

  26. You are not advocating conscripted slavery for a source of government workers, are you?

    Shhh. Don’t give them any ideas.

  27. Rhetorically Wondering, of course, misstates my position. And, it might be nice if Obama hadn’t supported deporting his own aunt at the same time as he doesn’t want to deport millions of other people he’s never met.

    Reason sure knows how to pick ’em, don’t they?

    I’m considering joining the BHO movement just so I can push Reason being the first media source to be shut down.

  28. Shhh. Don’t give them any ideas.

    Rep Rangel brings it up on a regular basis and the Leftoid ‘bloggers somehow label it as a Bush/Cheney plot every time.

  29. OLS: Working our way into a frothy election day frenzy, are we?

    Take a breath.

    The Obama squads aren’t coming for you until tomorrow.

  30. And, it might be nice if Obama hadn’t supported deporting his own aunt at the same time as he doesn’t want to deport millions of other people he’s never met.

    LOL. He’s tougher on family members than strangers – but aren’t we all?

    “Auntie, I love ya but I gotta deport ya.”

    Meanwhile, make way for Pedro and his sixteen cousins.

  31. Should we be shocked that Matt Welch is wasting our time with more gas-baggery about McCain?

    No.

    Fire. Welch. Now.

  32. jkp,

    Fire. Welch. Now.

    Stop that! Matt is a pretty cool guy and writes lots of good stuff. Like that rat story.

  33. I think McCain is simply more honest than most in acknowledging that it’s easy to be honorable when the Devil isn’t standing next you with a contract in hand.

    I also think there is a lot to be said for the self-awareness.

    So, I think your premise is fundamentally flawed.

    As flawed as McCain.

  34. All of you bagging on Matt Welch need to understand something. This article takes McCain’s own words and shows that he is indeed the spineless worm he contemplated in his book. Sorry to be a kill joy but Matt isn’t “hopping on the BHO bandwagon.” He’s simply showing McCain in the bright light of day, using “the Maverick’s” own words.

    Besides, as you may well recall from this not to distant post, Welch is most likely throwing his vote away on someone not named “Obama”.

  35. This article takes McCain’s own words and shows that he is indeed the spineless worm he contemplated in his book. Sorry to be a kill joy but Matt isn’t “hopping on the BHO bandwagon.” He’s simply showing McCain in the bright light of day, using “the Maverick’s” own words.

    That’s all good stuff, but I would have liked Reason to have someone who had displayed the same tenacity in investigating and writing about Obama.

    His record is thin, but even so, it is chock full of evasions and contradictions. Shame you didn’t read a fraction as much about Obama’s flaws here as you did about McCain’s, isn’t it?

  36. McCain may be toast, but Welch is a shameless self-promoter. I wonder if he even can write a piece that doesn’t discuss McCain.

  37. Here is the real McCain, a bumbling twit who got as far as he could by backstabbing the goldwater-reaganite conservative base at every opportunity, which he did gleefully. He rides to the Republican nomination on the wings of Democrat raiders who played republican for a day and the liberal media. Once he wins the nomination, he is shocked, shocked, that the liberal media abandons him. He then runs a lackluster campaign reluctantly having to appeal to the Republican base (whose only thing they liked about him was the Surge which ended up working), whose positions and reaganite philosophy he didn’t agree with but had to feign support for, and who fully intended to backstab the moment he got into office. We all knew he would betray us if he ever got into office, the reason he picked Palin was to throw us a bone to relieve some of our anxiety, we all know she would have no say in a McCain presidency, that his main man would continue to be that socialist c**t, Lindsey Graham. But he was the lesser of two evils, but his picking Palin finally gave us a reason to vote for him. So he continued to run a shit campaign like we knew he would, incapable of adjusting to the fact that the leftists he depended on had abandoned him, awkwardly touting a limited government(inb4 dogmatist rants) ideology he didn’t care for, and in general, being a crusty f**ktard.

  38. the Republican base [?] reaganite philosophy?
    Palin finally gave us a reason to vote for him?

    What.

  39. Any man who does not pose such questions to himself about his ability to withstand the need to compromise his integrity even a little bit when faced with the siren call of fame, riches, or power is not a man at all. Certainly not an honest man. McCain’s only “sin” here is that he had the temerity to share his inner challenge to himself. That’s makes him a bigger man than the author or some of the posters here.

  40. Come on. All politicians change their positions and ideas or they could never get elected. McCain, from what I have seen, has just been more honest about it than the others. None of them, for example, really “understand the economy,” but only McCain actually admitted that, and he was pilloried relentlessly for doing it. Barack Obama, of course,is utterly principled and never changes his positions for ambition, right? Oh, please!

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