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Sunday, April 02, 2006
Positioning a "Straight Shooter"
There seems to be a hunger in America for politicians who fearlessly express a unique and coherent vision, and who seem to have little regard for how their vision may contradict the standard positions of their own party. This speaks to a general dissatisfaction, broadly felt in both parties, with the compromises that are necessary to hold together diverse coalitions. Even if such a politician's vision does not match one's own, the voter often finds it attractive to see that particular positions need not be captives of general orthodoxies.

Whether deserved or not, Sen. John McCain was acknowledged as one such politician in the course of his doomed 2000 presidential run, and it generated great excitement amongst independent voters and many Democrats as well. The glow from that campaign continued down through the years to such an extent that John Kerry seemed to seriously consider asking McCain to be his running mate in 2004, despite the fact that McCain's vision was and is actually quite conservative, and not at all supportive of the basic principles of the Democratic party.

The problem for such maverick candidates, of course, is that what appeals to the independents, or to some part of the opposition party, is seen as treachery by the base of one's own party - and it is the base of the party that effectively controls the nomination process.

Which brings us to the John McCain of today. No doubt he sees the polls that show that he maintains considerable support from across the political spectrum, that he leads the presidential polls amongst Republicans, and that he is well ahead of any Democratic rival in general election match-ups. He could actually win this thing. But can he do so as a maverick, a straight shooter? What price will he have to pay in terms of his reputation in order to win the allegiance of the Republican base, or at the very least, to defuse their animus toward him so that they might come to accept him, however begrudgingly?

On Meet the Press today (video here), McCain has disavowed his previous characterization of Jerry Falwell as being an "agent of intolerance". There seems no change in Falwell's positions or his character. He is still a man who sees America as deserving of a god's blessings only to the extent that Americans live by his (Falwell's) fundamentalist conception of what the christian god demands. That ain't tolerance.

In a recent column, E.J. Dionne has made some of these points, as well as discussing McCain's changing views on tax cuts. Joe Gandleman at The Moderate Voice walks through more examples of McCain on the political tightrope. Steven Taylor at Poliblog has analysis of '08 implications from a republican-friendly point of view.

A great danger for McCain arising from today's interview relates to the specific issue he addressed - tolerance. One of the virtues of being a maverick is the implied acceptance of the notion that not all wisdom lies in one particular party - that the candidate is open to hearing different voices, no matter their source, and will arrive at positions after due deliberation. This may not, in fact, be the case - one can certainly be an arrogant, close minded maverick, but the promise of such tolerance does tend to come with the maverick package. If McCain now is willing to define Falwell as a tolerant sort, then the McCain definition is emptied of most of its meaning. Without such meaning, without some sense of tolerance of diverse views, McCain's maverick appeal will be seriously degraded.
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