Friday, September 22, 2006

Swift-Boats on the Slipways for McCain

David Cameron, the new Conservative Party leader in Britain, has invited John McCain to his party conference to show that his is chummy with a moderate Republican successor, unlike Blair's partnership with the diabolically right wing Bush.
Here in this week's Tribune, I try to explain the pitfalls for all concerned.

Swift Boat to Washington

Although his choice of partner shows much more taste and principle than Tony Blair has shown with his transatlantic buddies, if David Cameron is hoping that his invitation to Senator John McCain for the Conservative Party Conference will be the beginning of a beautiful Bush/Blair style power couple, he is likely to be disappointed, even if McCain sees him as the heir of Blair--whom he admires.

John McCain is a person of principles, but essentially he will have to lose some of them to win the Republican nomination in the presidential primaries. Cameron would have done better to invite Hillary Clinton over if he wanted a soulmate. Her only principle is winning elections, so she will not have to eat too many words.

British politicians either do not understand American politics--which is worrying since both parties spend so much time anally osculating Washington--or even more frighteningly, they do, and they are trying to retrogress British politics to before the Great Reform Act.

In the eighteenth century the Whigs and Tories were essentially two juntas whose ambition was take over the Treasury and loot it for their supporters. American politics never really changed from that era. We can make allowances for Cameron with his recent elevation, but one cannot help suspecting that Tony Blair understands American politics only too well, and has made the reversion of political parties to cabals of self-appointed grandees the unspoken essence of New Labour.

American legislators work tirelessly and shamelessly to bring home the bacon for those who donated to their election campaign--and even occasionally to their constituents, but mostly their donors who provide the money to con the voters. One cannot help suspecting that any resemblance between that and New Labour's recent donor-driven politics is not just a coincidence, but was helped by Tony Blair's close examination of Bill Clinton's engagingly amoral fundraising. Both assumed that they could take for granted their core voters, the poor, the underprivileged and the principled since they had nowhere else to go.
The seventies saw the great flip, when the former Southern Democrats, who were on most issues far to the right of many Republicans, defected to them. Since then they have consolidated the race issue with a heavy dose of fundamentalist Protestantism allied with a Catholicism that ignores the Pope on the death penalty, but regards abortion as a killer issue for elections. With these seriously ugly and intolerant ideological, indeed theological, influences, mere conservative Republicans of the old school, like McCain, have been looking like endangered species.
In general, the Republicans have far fewer registered voters than the Democrats, so extremists can have a disproportionate effect on the choice of candidate and in effect make the party unelectable with the majority of less rabid voters. (Conversely, it makes it easier to buy a Republican nomination, since they have even less of an organized structure than the Democrats, which is why lifelong Democrat Bloomberg decided, in effect, to buy the Republican nomination as New York's mayor rather than get into the rough and tumble of Democratic precinct politics.)
Occasionally, there is a happy concatenation of principle and pragmatism, like last week when Senator Lincoln D Chafee of Rhode Island trounced a conservative challenger for the Republican candidacy in the primary. Chafee has opposed the right wing tax cuts, the war in Iraq and the nomination of conservative ideologues to the Supreme Court. He has even caviled at confirming John Bolton as US Ambassador to the UN. But Republican national leaders know that Chaffee was what his voters in Rhode Island want, and as long as he sticks with the party, and helps them control the Senate and thus the purse strings they can tolerate a lot of eccentricity.
But that was a local election. So where does this play into the Presidential election in two years? Essentially, to win his primary elections George W. Bush (apart from fixing Florida and the Supreme Court) had to talk moderately enough not to frighten off the Chafee-style Republicans, but had to assure the increasingly influential evangelical and loony-right of the party that he was really on their side, so they would support him in the primaries.
Bush, Rove and Cheney successfully convinced the evangelicals and the loony right that he was on their side, but had to sail under false colours to win, and one must admit, was far better at keeping his promises to them than most politicians are. Since then however, the manifest failure of the war, the shameful incompetence over Operation Katrina, and the series of legal scandals afflicting the Republican Party, have led to the belated beginnings of a palace revolt
McCain, one of the few national figures in the Republican Party known for integrity rather than scandal, is no peacenik and no liberal. But he does have principles Interestingly, this week he co-authored an op-ed with former Senator Dole, calling for stronger action on Darfur.
McCain, along with fellow-Republicans Senator John Warner and Colin Powell, has denounced Bush's plans for unilaterally rewriting the Geneva Conventions. All of them have military records, which puts them on a different planet from the callow "chicken-hawks" around the White House, epitomized by Bush, who drank his way through the South in the National Guard while McCain was a POW in South Vietnam.
Either McCain or Powell could have run on a Democratic vice-presidential ticket – and were certainly no more belligerent or conservative than Senator Joe Lieberman, who was the candidate with Kerry.
McCain had a good excuse. In addition to their contempt for armchair torturers and inquisitors, McCain has a deep personal grudge against Bush. When he ran against Bush in the primaries, anonymous "pollsters" called voters across the South asking them if they would vote for him if they heard that he had fathered an illegitimate black child. He had not – he had adopted a Bangladeshi orphan, but the double whammy of miscegenation and sexual misconduct pulled levers with Southern Republicans – and fingers pointed to Karl Rove for this "swiftboating."
For a precursor of the fate of McCain's candidacy, one should look at Senator Bob Dole's abortive bid for the presidency, where his lurch to the right to win the primary lost him liberal support in the actual election, while the right simply did not believe his conversion – and many supported Ross Perot. Bush and his gang may have promised him an easy ride in return for not defecting in the last election. But one cannot help thinking that somewhere along the Mississippi, the swift-boats are on the slipway, waiting to launch against him as they did against Kerry.

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