Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I've said this before...

about Bill Clinton, and I'll say it now about John McCain. The behavior you're seeing now isn't new; it's just that now he's directing it against Barack Obama instead of against targets on the right. There seem to have been a lot of people who had unlimited patience for McCain's fact-free, lying, bullying, moralistic swagger when it was, for example, channeled into his campaign finance crusade, and would lead him to baseless charges of corruption against those who disagreed with him on principled grounds. He was no more saintly a tobacco-control fighter or campaign-finance fighter than he is a fighter for the presidency; in all cases, his incredible self-regard has gone hand in hand with a view that all who opposed him were corrupt, illegitimate, unvirtuous, unpatriotic. And in all cases his certainty of his own rightness in all things has meant that mere facts or truth weren't much of an obstacle to him.

Jonathan Chait almost nails it:

McCain's deep investment in his own honor can drive him to do honorable things, but it can also allow him to believe that anything he does must be honorable. Thus the moralistic, crusading tone McCain brings to almost every cause he joins. In 2000 and afterward, McCain came to despise George W. Bush and Karl Rove. During his more recent primary campaign, McCain thought the same of front-runner Mitt Romney. Not surprisingly, Romney was the target of McCain's most unfair primary attack--an inaccurate claim that he favored a withdrawal timetable in Iraq.

In time, when Bush's support became necessary for his second presidential campaign, McCain reconciled himself to his former rival--and even to Rove, whom he has reportedly taken on as an outside adviser. More recently, he apparently changed his view of Romney. Now, Obama is the villain. "The contempt that many McCain aides hold for Barack Obama," The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wrote this summer, "rivals the contempt that McCain held for Mitt Romney a year ago." As Time reported, "McCain and his aides now view Obama with the same level of contempt they once reserved for tobacco-company executives, corrupt lawmakers and George W. Bush. They have convinced themselves that Obama is not honorable, that he does not love his country as much as himself."

The pattern here is perfectly clear. McCain has contempt for anybody who stands between him and the presidency. McCain views himself as the ultimate patriot. He loves his country so much that he cannot let it fall into the hands of an unworthy rival. (They all turn out to be unworthy.) Viewed in this way, doing whatever it takes to win is not an act of selfishness but an act of patriotism. McCain tells lies every day and authorizes lying on his behalf, and he probably knows it. But I would guess--and, again, guessing is all we can do--that in his mind he is acting honorably. As he might put it, there is a bigger truth out there.

But still I'll say "almost." Chait's mini-bio here is all about the presidency, but this isn't a pattern that only emerges when McCain's running for that office. It's how he conducts himself in all political disputes. It's on display even now with his bizarre and almost-incoherent personalization of the financial crisis into charges of malfeasance against Republican FEC chairman Chris Cox. And his history of doing so in his fights with other Republicans has some relationship to the fact that they're not particularly rushing to his defense now, and to the fact that a figure like George Will has prose like this saved up:
Under the pressure of the financial crisis, one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high. It is not Barack Obama.

Channeling his inner Queen of Hearts, John McCain furiously, and apparently without even looking around at facts, said Chris Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, should be decapitated. This childish reflex provoked the Wall Street Journal to editorialize that "McCain untethered" -- disconnected from knowledge and principle -- had made a "false and deeply unfair" attack on Cox that was "unpresidential" and demonstrated that McCain "doesn't understand what's happening on Wall Street any better than Barack Obama does."[...]

In any case, McCain's smear -- that Cox "betrayed the public's trust" -- is a harbinger of a McCain presidency. For McCain, politics is always operatic, pitting people who agree with him against those who are "corrupt" or "betray the public's trust," two categories that seem to be exhaustive -- there are no other people. McCain's Manichaean worldview drove him to his signature legislative achievement, the McCain-Feingold law's restrictions on campaigning. Today, his campaign is creatively finding interstices in laws intended to restrict campaign giving and spending.[...]

It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?