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The McCain Mutiny
Ben Sullivan (in white) gets the first dance with Matt Welch at the party last Saturday night to celebrate the publication of Matt's fantastic book on John McCain, McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.


McCain is starting to look good to a few people -- like NRO's Ramesh Ponnuru. (Matt, send him a copy of the book, fast.) Ponnuru writes:

My own view is that McCain would be the strongest general-election candidate the Republicans could put up next year. He is solid on almost all of the important issues: the war, judges, entitlements, abortion, trade. . . Even on taxes, he has righted himself. He voted against the Bush tax cuts, but he has never voted to raise income taxes and, this spring, ruled out any such move in an interview with me.

I endorsed McCain this spring because he is a conservative who can win in November 2008. Since my endorsement, he has moved from triumph to triumph. Well, okay, his campaign very nearly ended — I did not foresee that the immigration bill would be revived and McCain would then spend weeks alienating conservatives — and diagnosticians differ about whether it is showing new signs of life this month.

Sometimes people remember that they dislike someone even when they have forgotten what inspired their dislike. I think something like this has happened to McCain: His biggest problem with conservatives isn’t that they have had so many disagreements, but that they have a bad impression of him.

Or, is it that they've taken a clear look at him, and seen that he's a bad bet?

Matt does a terrific job stripping away all the facile depictions of Candidate McCain by the press, showing that "much of what we think we know about John McCain is wrong." For example, Matt writes that the "Straight Talk Express" man "does not, for instance, talk particularly straight." Very oddly, as Matt shows, nothing seems to invigorate the guy like a lost cause. And "the man of the people" really isn't, but likely got the reputation for it via his coziness with the men and women of the press, giving unprecedented access to journalists; or, as Matt puts it, "about every national journalist who has a question," and even invited feature writer Michael Lewis to stay at his apartment to cover the 2000 presidential campaign.

Another quote from Matt's book:

...The campaign finance crusade is where the modern McCain as we know him got his start. It combined all his best and worst character traits--noisy martyrdom for a hopeless cause, defiance in the face of hostile opposition, elitism, exaltation of the government at the expense of the individual, and a 12-Step sense of messianic fervor.

I didn't have time to describe or type out more stuff from the book, so I'll link to a piece Matt wrote about McCain in the Union Leader:

Sifting through McCain’s four best-selling books and nearly three decades of work on Capitol Hill, a distinct approach toward governance begins to emerge. And it’s one that the electorate ought to be particularly worried about right now. McCain, it turns out, wants to restore your faith in the U.S. government by any means necessary, even if that requires thousands of more military deaths, national service for civilians and federal micromanaging of innumerable private transactions. He’ll kick down the doors of boardroom and bedroom, mixing Democrats’ nanny-state regulations with the GOP’s red-meat paternalism in a dangerous brew of government activism. And he’s trying to accomplish this, in part, for reasons of self-realization.

The first clue to McCain’s philosophy lies in two seemingly irrelevant items of gossip: His father was a drunk, and his second wife battled addiction to pain pills. Neither would be worth mentioning except for the fact that McCain’s books and speeches are shot through with the language and sentiment of 12-step recovery, especially Steps 1 (admitting the problem) and 2 (investing faith in a “Power greater than ourselves”).

Like many alcoholics who haven’t quite made it to Step 6 (becoming “entirely ready” to have these defects removed), McCain is disarmingly talented at admitting his narcissistic flaws. In his 2002 book “Worth the Fighting For,” the senator is constantly confessing his problems of “selfishness,” “immaturity,” “ambition” and especially “temper,” though he also makes clear that his outbreaks of anger can be justifiable and even laudable when channeled into “a cause greater than self-interest.”

“A rebel without a cause is just a punk,” he explains. “Whatever you’re called -- rebel, unorthodox, nonconformist, radical -- it’s all self-indulgence without a good cause to give your life meaning.”

What is this higher power that ennobles McCain’s crankiness? Just as it is for many soldiers, it’s the belief that Americans “were meant to transform history” and that sublimating the individual in the service of that “common national cause” is the wellspring of honor and purpose. (But unlike most soldiers, McCain has been in a position to prod and even compel civilians to join his cause.)

...One of the many charming confessions in “Worth the Fighting For” is McCain’s complaint that the man he replaced in the Senate -- Republican icon Barry Goldwater -- was “never as affectionate as I would have liked.” Small wonder.

Goldwater, a man who seemed to emanate from Arizona’s dust, was the paragon of limited government, believing to his core that the feds shouldn’t tell you how to run a business or whom you can sleep with. McCain, on the other hand, is a third-generation D.C. insider who carpetbagged his way into office, believing to his core that “national pride will not survive the people’s contempt for government.” On Nov. 7, those conflicting worldviews collided when Arizonans voted on whether to outlaw gay marriage. McCain campaigned in favor of the ban, in the name of “preserving the sanctity” of heterosexual unions. His exhortations went down to surprising defeat. Not, one suspects, for the last time.

Matt's book is terrific, and a terrific read. Buy one, and after you read it, pass it on to somebody you know who's a fan of McCain -- or, rather, the myth they think is McCain.

Posted by aalkon at October 30, 2007 11:33 AM


No sale for John McCain. I don't need to read the book. McCain Feingold proved he's no conservative. The Keating Five proved he has bad judgement. I thank him for his heroic service to the nation, but I wouldn't follow him across the street without looking both ways.

Posted by: MarkD at October 30, 2007 7:58 AM

McCain's obsession with campaign finance reform always struck me as the political equivalent of a twenty minute guitar solo. Your groupies might think you're cool, but the vast majority of the audience is looking at their watches.

Maybe that's why Senators have such an awful record of obtaining the Presidency when running against Governors. Would you rather vote for a one-trick pony or someone with big-picture experience?

Posted by: snakeman99 at October 30, 2007 12:58 PM

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