Election 2008

The Race John McCain Will Run

Mitt Romney showed us which way McCain will go this fall.
Nothing in Mitt Romney's campaign for president became him like the leaving of it. In his swan song, delivered to the Conservative Political Action Committee, Romney trotted out all the cliches that right-wingers love to hear. He warmed up the crowd with their perennial favorite villain, the "60s: "The threat to our culture comes from within. In the 1960s, there were welfare programs that created a culture of poverty. The attack on faith and religion is no less relentless. And tolerance for pornography, even celebration of it, and sexual promiscuity."

But the culture war no longer sells the way it used to, as Mike Huckabee is finding out the hard way. And despite Romney's obligatory praise of private enterprise capitalism, Republicans can hardly expect to win by running on economic issues. Even Barack Obama would be glad to hit the campaign trail asking, "Are you better off now, after seven years of conservative rule, than you were when Bill Clinton left office?" Case closed.

So Romney hastened through the economic gauntlet to get to the main attraction, the only issue that John McCain has any chance of winning on: "The greatest challenge facing America, and for that matter facing the entire civilized world: the threat of radical, violent jihad." They hate us and we hate them, Romney declared. So "we are a nation at war. We cannot allow the next president of the United States to retreat in the face of evil extremism."

But what if the next president were a black man or a woman? For conservatives, Barack and Hillary are equally frightening symbols of '60s culture, peace movement and all. They "would retreat, declare defeat," Romney solemnly warned. "And the consequence of that would be devastating. It would mean attacks on America, launched from safe havens that would make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like child's play. About this, I have no doubt. I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."

How inspiring! A superpatriot, putting country above self, quits the race so that we can all rally around the fighting maverick, the war hero who never says die, the only man who can save the civilized world: John McCain.

McCain's campaign strategists will put up one big sign in their headquarters: "It's the war on terrorism, stupid." They will do their damnedest to make the election a referendum on America's strength and resolve to achieve what Romney called "the burden of liberty to preserve this country." McCain will carry a banner inscribed with Romney's words: "By the providence of the Almighty, we will succeed beyond our fondest hope. America must always remain, as it has always been, the hope of the Earth" -- no matter how many bombs we have to drop to do it.

The McCain campaign may try to paint their opponent as the "peace candidate" -- the '60s liberal Democrat, too weak-willed, too relativist, too morally promiscuous to keep America strong. McCain's writers will surely insist that "victory" in Iraq is the litmus test of America's strength and resolve everywhere (though they'll never tell us exactly what "victory" might mean). What other script can they write and hope to win?

The last thing the Democratic strategists want is to let their candidate be backed into the "peace" corner. The Dems want the campaign to be, once again, all about "the economy, stupid." That's their sure winner. The more talk of war, the less the Dems can control the campaign debate. So they'd like to see the war remain where the foreign policy establishment has put it in recent months, on the back burner.

They've got another reason, too. Despite their somewhat different approaches to foreign policy, both are committed to maintaining American military preeminence (some dare call it empire) around the world. Specifically, they are committed to keeping a massive U.S. troop presence in or near Iraq to prevent (or so they hope) Iran from gaining more power in the Middle East.

So neither Clinton nor Obama have any interest in running as a genuine peace candidate (a la George McGovern in 1972), mobilizing the millions who want to reverse decades of U.S. imperialism. A president who gains office on a real peace platform would be beholden to the peace movement. That would be the foreign policy establishment's worst nightmare.

The departure of Romney, and the words he used to bid farewell, shine a clear light on the fundamental issue of the presidential campaign. Like all campaigns, it will boil down to a contest between two grand narratives about the meaning of America.

McCain's story is about America as the great avenger, dedicated to waging endless battle against evildoers who threaten civilization. The Democratic candidate will tell a story about America as the land of abundance, where some four-fifths of us deserve to live in material comfort, while we reach down to pull the submerged one-fifth up, at least a little bit.

(If Obama is the Dems' standard-bearer, he'll dress up that story in a larger narrative about America as a land where diverse people come together in harmony. He may have told Maureen Dowd he doesn't think about mythic narratives, but I don't believe it. Every winning campaign is built on a mythic narrative, as he surely knows. His own myth is too good, and he tells it too well, for it to be unintentional.)

In other words, the McCain campaign will strive mightily to turn the campaign into a referendum on George W. Bush's post-9/11 myth of America's battle against evil. The Democrats will try to make that myth a secondary issue. Both sides will run daily polls to see which way the political wind blows.

The fundamental (albeit unasked) question the public will have to answer is this: Did 9/11 really change everything? Do we want to remain in an endless war, full of endless tales of heroic glory and patriotic pride? Are the emotional satisfactions of enacting a cosmic drama of good against evil worth the exorbitant price in blood and treasure?

Or will we set 9/11 aside and act as if it were 1992 all over again (especially if Hillary is the candidate) or even (if Barack is the candidate) 1960? Will we treat the post-9/11 war fervor as a brief interruption in a long post-cold war turn from obsession with national security to obsession with material prosperity?

Here's what it comes down to: Do we want to emulate the post-World War I generation and return to "normalcy"? Or do we want to emulate the cold war generation and embrace what Dick Cheney (borrowing from an Eisenhower administration staffer) called "the new normalcy" of a permanent global battle? Among the many issues at stake in this fall's presidential campaign, that may turn out to be the most important of all.

Which creates quite a dilemma for those of us who have labored long and hard to end the war. If we continue to insist that the war is the nation's most urgent issue, though we are opposing McCain's stand on the war, we are endorsing and broadcasting the narrative he needs to win. If we decide that McCain must be defeated at all costs, we have to lay low and help the Democrats set the war issue aside, at least until after election day. Politics creates strange bedfellows. In that bed there are rarely any easy answers.

AlterNet is a non profit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by our writers are their own.



Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.
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