Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 29, 2008
POLITICS: The Integrity Gap, Part III of III: John McCain and Joe Biden
III. John McCain: The Zeal of the Convert
Given the length and public nature of John McCain's career on the national stage, I won't go here through his record in the depth that I explored those of Gov. Palin and Sen. Obama. But I will lay out a number of examples that show the sharp contrast between McCain's approach to situations calling for integrity and Barack Obama's.
Senator McCain's former, false friends in the media used to paint him as some sort of secular saint, a man who infused politics with a unique brand of noblity that elevated the grubby business of Washington to a higher plane of bipartisanship, reform and self-sacrifice. St. John the McCain was always a myth; we should put not our faith in politicians, and nobody gets as far as McCain has in national politics wholly unsullied by politics and all that comes with it. But if McCain the saint is a myth, McCain the public servant is nonetheless an admirable figure who has passed many tests of fire (in some cases, literally). McCain looks more rather than less impressive when we view him through the justifiably jaded eye that should be cast on any politician.
McCain has been, in his words "an imperfect servant" of this country; I will not try to convince you otherwise, and will deal up front with the two major and deserved blots on his reputation. I will not try to convince you that over 26 years in politics he's been above consorting with lobbyists, accepting endorsements from unsavory people, pandering to constituencies, or changing positions when it suits his needs. But however you define the negative features of "politics as usual," we expect our Presidents to have that quality that allows them to rise above it - perhaps not every day on every issue, but often enough, and forcefully enough, and in spite of enough slings and arrows that we can have confidence that they can be trusted to stand up for us even when it's hard to do so, even at great cost.
There is no question that McCain has shown, over and over and over again, his ability to do just that. He's publicly called out waste and corruption, even in his own party. He's taken on powerful vested interests on the Left and the Right - not just wealthy and well-connected ones but grassroots interests as well. McCain may not fight every battle that needs to be fought, but he will always be fighting, and he will not be afraid to take on targets that can hit him back.
(1) McCain The Faithful Warrior
John McCain is a professional soldier by birth, upbringing and career. We have had war-hero candidates in several recent elections - George H.W. Bush, John Kerry, Bob Dole - but these men were fundamentally citizen soldiers, men who left behind the world they grew up in to meet their country's call of duty. They were men who were asked to be heroes and discovered that they had it in them. John McCain was raised to be a hero.
That doesn't make the professional soldier more or less noble than the citizen soldier; for most of our nation's history, we have depended upon the ability to meld professional warfighters with citizen soldiers to create an armed force that greater than the sum of its parts. It just means that we have to remember that McCain's internal code of conduct is much more expressly military - a code that places honor, the keeping of one's word and one's loyalty to country and comrades above all else and against all perils.
I won't recount here in any detail the most famous of all McCain stories, his refusal to accept early release as a POW in Vietnam, at the cost of solitary confinement and torture that left him with permanent injuries. But recall that what McCain was doing in that episode was all about the POWs' code of conduct and code of honor. McCain saw the other men around him suffer greatly for that code of honor, and he refused to betray them by betraying it. Indeed, when McCain speaks even to this day about the episode in which he finally broke one night under torture and signed a false confession, you can hear in his voice that he has never forgiven himself even for that moment of wholly understandable weakness. But when morning came, he still refused to go home. He established then and there that when McCain perceives that an issue of his honor is at stake, he will not yield no matter what he must suffer.
(2) McCain The Unfaithful Husband
McCain's code of honor does not, unfortunately, extend to every aspect of his life; most famously, he failed at what most of us regard as the most solemn vow a man can take. His first marriage collapsed in the late 1970s due principally to McCain's serial infidelity to his first wife, who like McCain had suffered serious injuries during his imprisonment, in her case in a car accident. Under all the circumstances - their long time apart, the hardships of war, the burdens of their physical disabilities - we may find it understandable that the marriage fell apart; but that doesn't in any way justify McCain in cheating on his wife and eventually leaving her to marry a younger, healthier, wealthier woman.
It's beyond the time and space I have available here to fully explore the relevance to a public official's career of purely private sins such as marital infidelity. I would briefly digress to suggest the following points, and apply them to McCain:
First, character does matter, and matters more for executives than for legislators due to the nature of the job and the broad discretion executives enjoy. Elections are never just about "the issues," given the broad range of unforeseen circumstances that can arise and given the serious questions voters must always ask about whether a candidate will keep his or her promises on the issues. That's why I'm writing this series, after all. I never bought the argument made by the Democrats throughout the 1990s that character is wholly irrelevant.
Second, private character is not irrelevant. We know that private problems can become public ones if, for example, a philanderer has an affair with, or sexually harrasses, a subordinate employee (Clinton, Foley), gets busted for hiring prostitutes or soliciting sex (Spitzer, Craig), puts unqualified lovers on the public payroll (McGreevey) or has to negotiate or regulate public business with an ex-mistress (Corzine, Frank). While it is true that men will do things for sex they might not do for other temptations, the weakness of character still tells us something about the man, and I am not at all convinced that strength of character can be so subdivided as to make private failings irrelevant to predicting public behavior. (This is aside from issues of deceit and recklessness involved when a public official dares the press to catch him when he knows he's guilty (Hart), chases skirts after he has been caught before (Clinton), engages in illegal activities to cover up an affair (Clinton) or lies directly to the public, to his supporters and to his closest aides (Clinton, Edwards)). Finally, a man with private sins may feel unduly and improperly constrained by his own glass house, and may let the fear of a hypocrisy charge frighten him away from standing up for virtue when it is appropriate or necessary to do so.
Third, however, character is not a series of yes/no questions. It is the test of the whole man, and the test of a lifetime. We understand that all our leaders have sins. Some are more serious than others (surely, marital infidelity is one of those), and some are more recent and current than others, but we are well-advised to judge the whole man, the whole record. A 24-year-old DUI conviction did so much damage to George W. Bush in the week before the 2000 election because, relatively speaking, he did not have a long, countervailing record of positive proof of his character when he ran for president. The same is true of rookie candidates like Obama and Edwards and Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin - having less by which to judge them, each incident and each failing grows larger in proportion. And a character flaw becomes more serious when it reinforces negative impressions about a candidate's public career. For conservatives, at least, Bill Clinton's serial infidelity and pervasive dishonesty about the matter was troublesome because it was so completely consistent with the public Clinton.
McCain comes to us with an exceptionally long public career and many, many incidents that have called upon him to show us his character and what he has made of. He has passed many tests, sometimes tests few living men have been exposed to. He has taken many stands. He is, in short, the ultimate known quantity; he is not going to be anyone in office but the John McCain we already know so well. Nor is there any real fear that McCain will get himself into similar messes in office - this is 30 years ago, and he's been happily and steadily married ever since. He is, frankly, 72 years old; he's not 42 anymore.
Do we see patterns of McCain's infidelity in his public life? Well, I suppose you could argue that we have, in the sense that he's been less than faithful to the Republican party over the years. As you can see from the examples I cite below, McCain obviously does not see loyalty to political ideas or institutions as covered by his code of honor, and so he can be tempted away from his loyalty to them. But on the fundamental question of whether the government should serve the general public interest or more narrow interests - even when those interests are the interests of large or influential groups - and on those issues, such as national security, that he plainly regards as matters of honor, McCain's military code of honor does, in fact, compel him to take stand after stand by the light of his conscience even when it's not obviously in his own best interests. We can trust him to do the same in office because we have been watching him do it all these years.
B. The Keating Five
I referred previously to Sarah Palin as an unlikely source for political reform, and in his own way, so is John McCain. Befitting his background, McCain came to Congress as a defense hawk who sought a place on the key national security committees; nothing in his background suggested a guy who would be a leading voice on domestic policy. But you can't really tell the story of John McCain's career as a Washington gadfly of reform without its origins in the "Keating Five" scandal of the late 1980s (McCain's so old even his scandals are ancient). While some of McCain's reformist streak predates the scandal, virtually every account of his career notes that having his honor called into question was the deepest cut McCain could possibly suffer, and one that motivated many of his later forays into cleaning up the ethical morass of Washington as a form of personal redemption.
Here's how the Arizona Republic describes the genesis of the scandal:
It all started in March 1987. Charles H Keating Jr., the flamboyant developer and anti-porn crusader, needed help. The government was poised to seize Lincoln Savings and Loan, a freewheeling subsidiary of Keating's American Continental Corp.
Despite his history with Keating, McCain was hesitant about intervening. At that point, he had been in the Senate only three months. DeConcini wanted McCain to fly to San Francisco with him and talk to the regulators. McCain refused.
After the meeting, McCain was done with Keating.
You can read the whole thing for an accounting of McCain's longstanding relationship (financial and political) with Keating and the blow-by-blow of the meeting. The five Senators - four Democrats, including John Glenn, last seen stumping for Obama, and McCain - got reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee under the Democrat-controlled Senate in 1990:
In the end, McCain received only a mild rebuke from the Ethics Committee for exercising "poor judgment" for intervening with the federal regulators on behalf of Keating. Still, he felt tarred by the affair.
McCain owns up to his mistake this way:
As Adam Clymer of the New York Times noted in 1995, partisan politics was behind even the tepid reprimand McCain received:
During the Keating Five scandal, committee Democrats resisted dropping the case against John McCain, the Arizona Republican, because that would have left only Democrats accused of improper dealings with Charles Keating, the savings and loan executive.
Basically, McCain's self-assessment is correct: like Glenn, he exercised terrible judgment in associating his good name with Keating, benefitting Keating in his dealings with the regulators. Neither McCain nor Glenn was as culpable in the scandal as DeConcini, Cranston or Riegle - fundamentally, all they really did was show their faces at a meeting - but they were wrong to do even that much. It's a lesson McCain shouldn't have had to learn, but learn he did.
C. The Maverick
We've now assembled the essential picture of John McCain as he stood nearly two decades ago, as a first-term Senator in his mid-50s: war hero who suffered greatly for his code of honor in Hanoi; philanderer who wrecked his first marriage, trying to make better on the second try; legislator tarred by scandal for his association with a crook and burning with a desire to reclaim his reputation for honor. I will freely admit that if McCain had run for President in 1992, at the stage of his career that Obama is at now, he would have had difficulty extricating proof of his honor and integrity from the wreckage of the Keating Five, and would have lacked much in the way of a record. But McCain has walked many miles since then to earn our trust; let us review the portrait that emerges:
(1) Party Disloyalty
The list of issues on which McCain has fought powerful interests inside and outside his own party is too long to recount here. Let us start with McCain the un-party man. For example, Gamecock has rounded up a fairly comprehensive list of McCain's deviations from conservative orthodoxy, including national security issues like interrogation policy. Jonathan Chait has described McCain's apostasies during Bush's first term:
It is no exaggeration to say that, during this crucial period, McCain was the most effective advocate of the Democratic agenda in Washington.
As Chait recognizes, McCain's stands on these issues is not really about ideology; it's McCain going his own idiosyncratic way. Some of these issues, of course, smell to conservatives like media or populist grandstanding. And as I stressed with Obama, I don't view adherence to principle or party loyalty as bad things, nor do I see deviation from the party line as necessarily good. I'd prefer that the GOP was running a principled conservative. But when we fill in the broader picture of McCain's tilts at Washington windmills, a clearer focus emerges, one that is about more than just what is passingly popular or fashionable. The picture that shows that no exterior influence can wholly explain John McCain's stubborn independence. McCain may tack at times with the wind, but he very frequently steers by his own stars.
(2) Scourge of the Hill
Let's touch on a few more that illustrate specifically my point about McCain's independence from powerful forces in all camps:
-Campaign finance reform, of course, is McCain's most famous signature domestic issue. I've never agreed with McCain's policy precriptions on this issue, nor have most conservatives. But nobody questions the sincerity of his crusading spirit on the issue, nor the price he has paid for it. It's not just that McCain has made lifelong enemies of principled conservative commentators like George Will; he also burned his bridges with the leadership of activist groups like the National Right to Life Committee and the NRA who chafed at the way his restrictions on issue ads interfered with their ability to promote their positions during elections. As a result, McCain to this day faces reactions ranging from indifference to seething opposition among the grassroots leadership on the Right that cuts across issues and blocs. (Indeed, it is quite possible that without Sarah Palin on the GOP ticket and Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee, the NRA would never have endorsed McCain).
-Then there's McCain's years-long battle against pork barrel spending projects, a battle that Tom Coburn has since joined but on which McCain for years led alone. The AP describes the origins:
McCain's crusade started with the line-item veto.
As the AP piece notes, and as we have seen on the trail, McCain still has to answer tough questions about his opposition to this or that local project. But he stands his ground - it's who he is.
-McCain opposed President Bush, the GOP Congressional leadership, the pharmaceutical companies and the AARP in opposing the expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs, something George Bush and Al Gore had campaigned on in 2000 and which was regarded as universally popular. McCain thought it was fiscally irresponsible, and he was right.
-McCain has battled for years against subsidies and trade barriers that use taxpayer funds to artifically prop up the price of corn ethanol despite serious questions about whether ethanol is a boondoggle as an alternative fuel. There's a reason why ethanol subsidies have such a lock on the political process: would-be presidential candidates must swear fealty to the ethanol lobby if they hope to compete in the crucial Iowa caucuses. McCain, nearly alone among recent presidential candidates (I believe Bill Bradley was an exception) refused to bend on the issue, as a result of which he skipped Iowa in the 2000 primaries, finished third there in 2008, and appears well behind ethanol-backing Barack Obama in this year's general election in Iowa. Remember: ethanol isn't just a moneyed lobby, it's also a popular cause in Iowa. But in this case the people are wrong, and McCain's not afraid to tell them that.
-McCain has likewise stubbornly supported free trade, proudly declaring himself a free trader in this year's debates. As with immigration and his foreign policy views, trade is a core part of McCain's internationalist worldview. He's been unfraid to campaign for it even in NAFTA-hating sectors of Ohio. It's who McCain is.
-As he has noted in a few of the debates, he opposed President Reagan on the use of Marines as peacekeepers in Beruit in 1983, a deployment Reagan later regarded as the worst mistake of his presidency. (Even efforts to spin this as somehow not the case note that "What McCain voted against was a measure to invoke the War Powers Act and to authorize the deployment of U.S. Marines in Lebanon for an additional 18 months. The measure passed 270-161, with 26 other Republicans (including McCain) and 134 Democrats voting against it."). *
-While many of McCain's positions over the years have been popular with the press, in 1999 he cast just about the most unpopular vote, from the media's perspective, in recent Washington history, to remove the President of the United States from office. As he explained at the time, with a nod to the inevitable hypocrisy charge given McCain's own marital history as well as the fact that he would be voting to wound a man who would still be in the White House, sitting atop high approval ratings, for the remaining year and a half of his term (while his primary opponent, George W. Bush, maintained studious silence on the issue), McCain, typically, viewed the vote as a matter of honor:
All of my life, I have been instructed never to swear an oath to my country in vain. In my former profession, those who violated their sworn oath were punished severely and considered outcasts from our society. I do not hold the President to the same standard that I hold military officers to. I hold him to a higher standard. Although I may admit to failures in my private life, I have at all times, and to the best of my ability, kept faith with every oath I have ever sworn to this country. I have known some men who kept that faith at the cost of their lives. I cannot--not in deference to public opinion, or for political considerations, or for the sake of comity and friendship--I cannot agree to expect less from the President.
-McCain then turned around and took a position that was unpopular with his party - to support President Clinton's pursuit of a war in Bosnia following on ths heels of his acquittal - but also angered the White House by calling for more ground troops and for formal Congressional approval of the war. McCain's resolution was shot down by a joint effort of Senate leaders Trent Lott and Tom Daschle. (McCain took a similar middle course on the recent FISA debate, angering the Bush White House by arguing that the issue should be sent to Congress but also angering opponents of the Bush surveillance policy by supporting the effort to enshrine it in law).
At stake is a $21 billion contract, of which Boeing, as prime contractor, gets the lion's share. The FCS program is billed by the Pentagon as an "overwhelmingly lethal" weapons system integrating battlefield computers into one vast communications network. It supports 550 workers at Boeing's Kent site and, according to the company, puts roughly $175 million into Washington state's economy each year.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, McCain has had trouble attracting support from defense contractors. * * * McCain's battles with defense contractors are a sign of his view, shared by Gov. Palin, that being pro-business doesn't have to mean accepting longstanding deference to the interests of particular businesses.
-Wall Street: Of course, we know about McCain's calls for reform of lobbying powerhouses Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, even during times when they were employing as a lobbyist Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager in 2000 and still a major figure in McCain's current campaign. But McCain also has a fairly long record of dissenting from his party by supporting regulation of the private sector of the financial industry. This, again, is not a stand I agree with, but it is yet another sign of how McCain marches to the beat of his own drum.
-Vietnam: McCain's integrity is also shown by his capacity for forgiveness. In 1996, in conjunction with the Clinton Administration, McCain joined across the aisle with John Kerry to work on normalizing relationships with the regime in Vietnam that tortured him. This wasn't always popular work; families of long-missing POWs often didn't appreciate the conclusions of McCain's and Kerry's work on the POW-MIA issue. But McCain answered the call to move forward rather than dwell on entirely justified grievances.
(3) Taking Names
I referred to this in the last installment - McCain hasn't just been willing to fight for reform, he's been willing to name names and make a lot of enemies to do it. McCain frequently embarrassed individual fellow Senators with his attacks on pork projects, including the now-famous "Bridge to Nowhere." McCain also chaired hearings on the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, despite the damage it did to the GOP's reputation on Capitol Hill. (Here's Salon in 2005 describing one such session). (Tom DeLay still hasn't forgiven him). *
(4) Iraq and Immigration
If you want an illustration of how John McCain's integrity played into his presidential campaign, even at great political risk, look at Iraq and immigration. McCain entered the race in 2007 as the consensus front-runner or co-front-runner for the nomination - the next guy in line, with a national reputation and good standing in the polls. By the late summer of 2007, his campaign was basically dead in the water. His public approval ratings tell the tale:
McCain's crash in 2007 was not the result of the rise of any one opponent, or any new scandal. It was, principally, driven by his decision to lead the fight in the Senate for comprehensive immigration reform, a hugely controversial piece of bipartisan legislation (his co-sponsor was the hated Ted Kennedy) that was massively unpopular with the Republican base. Grassroots activists were up in arms, and pundits branded McCain "McAmnesty." It was practically a textbook example of how to destroy a primary campaign by picking a fight with his party's base. But McCain saw the Senate fight through to the end.
It could be argued, of course, that McCain was playing to the middle and aiming for the general election. After all, Latino voters are an important general election constituency in a number of states. But at the same time that McCain was risking his neck with primary voters over immigration, he was doing the same with the general electorate over what was then the massively unpopular war in Iraq.
We can all well remember how setbacks in the Iraq War in 2006 helped the Democrats capture Congress and emboldened previously waffling candidates like Obama to become full-throated advocates of immediately commencing a withdrawal from Iraq. Many on the Right thought that the main challenge of 2008 would be the unpopularity of the war, and careful observers noted that throughout the spring and summer of 2007, Mitt Romney was leaving himself room to run away from the war effort in time for the general election if it went badly.
Not McCain, whose famous declaration - "I'd rather lose an election than lose a war" - perfectly captured the extent to which the war remained a matter of principle to the old warrior. McCain had been a supporter of the war since the beginning (and an Iraq hawk for a decade before that), but had also repeatedly angered the White House and the Pentagon with his calls for more troops. When the Bush Administration adopted the "surge" strategy that incorporated a short-term increase in troop levels, McCain went all-in on the strategy, banking his campaign on America's success. Had the surge failed, McCain would have been toast in the general election, and probably early enough that it would have cost him the primaries as well. But as on immigration, McCain eschewed the cautious approach and the conventional wisdom in favor of his longstanding principles. That America stands within reach of victory in Iraq is in no small part due to his persistent advocacy of the war and the surge, even when they were especially unpopular with those people - moderates and swing voters disaffected from Bush - who McCain would need to court in the general election. But even when McCain most desperately needed votes, he still put the good of the war effort first. When has Barack Obama done anything like that? When has the moment ever called for anything that Barack Obama delivered?
IV. Joe Biden: Business As Usual
I'm not going to spend much time here on Joe Biden. First of all, nobody's voting on Joe Biden. Second, whatever Biden's intentions and however long his tenure in Washington, there just isn't any point in taking seriously the idea that Biden could be any sort of agent of "change"...let's review:
Biden served in the Senate for most of the 1970s without making a mark as a reformer or exposing any significant corruption.
Biden served in the Senate for all of the 1980s without making a mark as a reformer or exposing any significant corruption.
Biden served in the Senate for all of the 1990s without making a mark as a reformer or exposing any significant corruption.
Biden has served in the Senate for the first nine years of this decade without making a mark as a reformer or exposing any significant corruption.
Oh, and Biden's son is a Washington lobbyist.
None of this makes him a bad guy or a bad Senator. But Biden is practically part of the furniture in the Senate; it's pretty hard to define what "business as usual" in the Senate means if it doesn't include Joe Biden.
Anyone who expects their politicians to be saints is in for a lifetime of rude surprises. John McCain and Sarah Palin haven't gotten as far as they have in politics without understanding how to do the things politicians do; you can pick over their records for projects they shouldn't have funded, contributors or endorsers they shouldn't have solicited, lobbyists they shouldn't have hired or worked with, etc. They aren't otherworldly figures descended to this fallen vale of tears to save us from our own vice. Their motives aren't always purely altruistic, and their ideas of reform aren't even always well-advised. And neither, for that matter, is Barack Obama an especially spineless political climber, at least by Chicago standards.
But what matters on the issue of integrity in office on matters of both politics and policy is that both McCain and Palin have been willing to stick their necks out and crack heads to make things happen. Time and again, each of them has stood up against corruption and waste even in their own party, making important and powerful enemies in their own ranks in the process. And Obama has never had the courage to do any of that; he was always, at every turn, happy to take what the machine was there to give him and look the other way, or worse. Obama has his issues he can campaign on, but on the question of integrity, he has nothing at all to offer. Change? Change how Washington politics works - even a little, even gradually, even one grimy hand-to-hand battle at a time? There is no plausible case you could make that Obama's record shows him to be any kind of change agent at all, let alone the kind that McCain and Palin have proven themselves to be. If Obama tries to change Washington, it will only be to aggrandize his own power and that of his party.
As I always say, in politics you judge a man's vices by the friends he keeps and his virtues by the enemies he makes. McCain and Palin have made enemies worth having. But all around him, all through his career, any enemy worth making has ended up instead as one of Obama's friends.