Reihan's piece is a disturbing document, one which shows that even the smartest among us can fall prey to cognitive dissonance. Reihan's justification for supporting McCain, I say without malice, is an endorsement of falling 100% into the hands of fantasy. It is an explicit rejection of empiricism as a method to determine political contests.
Reihan's argument, such as it is, is that we have not just gone through 20 months of campaigning by John McCain. No, we've been laboring under the misconception that the man who appears before us is the real McCain; that crass politician who has stoked the flames of cultural hatred and partisan divide is a construct designed, somehow, merely to win an election, and then be discarded once he ceases to be of use-- never mind the utter failure of that construct to actually build any lead in the polls. Reihan avers "We haven't seen the real McCain in this campaign." Let me be plain: that is a nonfalsifiable, evidence-resistant assertion that can only be supported by faith.
Even if it were possible for a candidate to hide his true self for the entire years-long grind of a Presidential campaign-- if it were possible that we haven't, actually, seen the real McCain, that the man on stage telling you he is the man he claims to be is in fact a Manchurian candidate who hides decency and level-headedness-- even in that case, I cannot imagine a worse framework in which to evaluate a political contest. Consider what this notion asks of us, as a democratic polity. Beneath every candidate's public persona, apparently, their rests a true self, which we are forced to divine. Voters could not rely on evaluation of the various candidates' stated positions, but would instead have to divine the secret meanings within. Even those who support Reihan's candidate would have a hard time endorsing this framework.
One of the dominant memes of the campaign, of course, has been to say that Obama's supporters are cheering for a cypher. We who are voting for Obama, the idea goes, are really just projecting onto him all of our hopes, and are able to do so because of his supposed emptiness and lack of substance. I find this notion strange, given Obama's very clear and readily-available policy proposals. But fair enough, it would indeed be a mistake to project onto any candidate the virtues one would most like to see. Surely, though, it is more logical to project those virtues onto a supposedly blank canvas, than to ascribed positive aspects to a candidate in the face of what that man and his campaign has been saying and doing. Again, the notion of who, precisely, is being naive is troubled. If an Obama supporter insisted that there was a "real Obama" beneath the public persona, god, the howls that would emerge from the Republican commentariat. It's exactly the attitude that's been so mocked by the Clintons and McCain.
The campaign's rhetoric, the stump speeches, the written platforms, the website, what was said at the debates, everything John McCain has said he is about and believes in-- none of this is his true self, I guess I'm meant to believe. We know this, because Rehain swears "we haven't seen the real John McCain in this campaign." No, inside, there is a different man entirely, a different man from the one who sneers out claims about terrorist sympathizing, and socialism, and an opponent who is supposedly an unknown and unvetted bogeyman. He isn't, Reihan would have us believe, the man he, his campaign, and their surrogates tell us he is.
Where have I heard this sort of notion before? Why, of course, it's the right's entire critique of Barack Obama. At the end of the day, when so many other narratives had failed to work, the McCain/Palin campaign decided that their only road to defeating Obama was to insist to the American people that they didn't know the real Obama. No, Obama the technocrat, Obama the moderate Dem, Obama the loving and mainstream family man-- that was a costume, a media-approved shell. Lurking underneath, we were told, and are told, is a radical socialist with disturbing ties, who would probably take your money and give it away to the poor, and probably secretly hates Israel, too. This is the Obama campaign's true crime, presenting one face to the public, while hiding another inside.
How quickly vice changes to virtue when partisan and ideological identification are switched. Where Barack Obama's supposed two-facedness is a part of the danger surrounding him, and the duplicity with which he is attempting to gain office, McCain's two selves are instead a sign of his integrity. Deep inside, Reihan sees the candidate he fell in love with long ago. Apparently, it's permissible for candidates to misrepresent who they really are, and what they really stand for, when the stakes are this high, and you're on the right side of the aisle.
Even if were true that, at one point, John McCain was the principled, bipartisan maverick the press so lovingly stylized him to be, this notion that the American electorate should suspend their affection for making decisions based on real-world evidence would be outrageous folly. But it isn't even true that McCain ever was the character he and the press made him out to be. (McCain and the press have since fallen out of love with each other, of course, as the press has had the audacity to accurately report that McCain was losing the election.) Matt Welch (fixed) documented the myth of McCain meticulously in his book, but that kind of reportage has been done in many different places. McCain appears to have always been a fairly conventional Republican, one who took part in precisely the kind of partisanship anyone must if they want to survive over 20 years in the Senate.
Reihan goes on to assert that
During Bush's first term in office, McCain served as a kind of leader of the opposition. Because the Democrats were so weak and divided, McCain became a rallying point for conservatives and liberals who opposed Bush on issues ranging from taxes and spending to the conduct of the war on terrorism.I'm sorry, but this is simply untrue. It's just not so. The fact that McCain voted 95% of the time in line with the Bush administrations wishes has become an Obama campaign talking point, so anyone can be forgiven for tuning it out. But it's not just a talking point, it's also true. It is an empirical fact that can be verified by studying McCain's voting record, as he himself knew when he bragged about his nearly unquestioning fidelity to the Bush administration's legislative agenda.
Reihan says "Now, in the last days of the campaign, he must find his voice, and make it clear that he's not in the race out of personal ambition - indeed, he would be well advised to make a one-term pledge." How does Reihan now that McCain isn't motivated by personal ambition? What possible politician could not be motivated by personal ambition? I'd love to hear some evidence that this is the case. As it stands, I find a lack of personal ambition neither a virtue for a presidential candidate, nor the sort of thing that can be known with enough certainty by anyone but the candidate himself to be of any use for a discriminating voter.
Reihan says in closing "Rather than win the election for a party or faction, he must promise to work with all parties and all talents to build a safer, more prosperous world." Again-- this is precisely the kind of post-partisan vision that has been endlessly mocked and derided when found in Obama supporters. And it is again a time when I shake my head in wonder. Where is Reihan deriving the notion that this candidate and his apparatus are in a position to bring this new ecumenicalism? This candidate, with this running mate, is someone interested in, or capable of, uniting the country? The one whose campaign has dedicated every available resource to rhetorically dividing the country into the pure and impure sections? This candidate, whose rallies without exception involve incitement against some supposedly malign segment of the American people? This candidate, who literally said there is a real Virginia, and a fake Virginia? It's incredible. Sarah Palin, the second-in-command of a great uniter?
The truth of the matter is, there is one candidate who has operated in this campaign with more decency and respect for his opponent than the other, and his name is Barack Obama.This is a candidate who has endured explicitly personal attacks, attacks on his integrity, patriotism and character, for the entire campaign, and yet has responded with arguments about policy. At times these are tough, negative arguments about policy, and even at times unfair ones, but they are about policy, not character. This is a man who has never even hinted at an attack on the patriotism of his opponent. This is a man who speaks with equanimity, who actually speaks about real post-partisanship, rather than making partisanship and cultural war his brand. That may be political pablum; but it's a far sight from "real American, fake America." This is a candidate who actually has some positive ads running. This is a man who, in a 30 minute campaign ad that ran this past week, never once mentioned his opponent. It's also a man who, at a campaign rally the other day in Florida, upon hearing his opponent's name booed, stopped the crowd and said "You don't have to boo, you just have to vote." That's precisely the kind of integrity that the myth of John McCain has insisted he operates under. I await the time when McCain interrupts Sarah Palin to stop the boos that she is inciting against Obama.
We are in a part of the calendar when people are fond of saying "your side does it too." Well, both sides do most things that the other side does. But it simply is not true that the Democrats or the Obama campaign has engaged in the same kind of cultural war that the Republicans and McCain have. That is just not true. I find few people with the gall to suggest it is. So I read with great confusion when Reihan insists that it is John McCain who can heal this gulf.
I am a partisan, and an idealogue. I am not a big fan of times when others suggest that they are not. Reihan, to his credit, is open about his ideological and partisan affinities. But this has been a rough campaign for Reihan, or so it seems to me. He often appears to be frustrated by his interlocutors' inability to see what he sees in John McCain. He really wants people, I think, to believe in the John McCain he believes in.
Well, with the proviso that I am in the tank for Obama, and a partisan Democrat, and a liberal: John McCain is not the man Reihan Salam thinks he is. He has never been that man. The question before us is this: do we follow in Reihan's footsteps and give ourselves over entirely to irrationality and quasi-religious faith in the supposedly self-evident goodness of John McCain? Or do we make our political decisions on the basis of empiricism and rationality, and derive evidence from the world around us? If that weighing of the political realities of McCain and Obama leads you to vote for McCain, then I understand. But I can't understand the abandonment of adult discrimination in favor of the hope that someone represents something other than what he says. Could it really, possibly be the case that the last 20 months of campaigning has all been a show? If someone can give me some precedent for that notion, if real world evidence could be provided to support it, I might be able to open my mind to the possibility that there is another McCain hidden beneath the surface. Absent of some evidence beyond assertion, I have to engage in the democratic process the way it was intended, and judge John McCain by his record, and his rhetoric, and his campaign, insted of trying to see the great man that his campaign is for some reason desperately attempting to hide.