John McCain's Bizarre 'Conservative Problem'

It's the day before the Virginia primary, and darkness has fallen outside the Aviation Museum in Richmond. Inside, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain stands proudly before a museum-exhibit version of his own A-4 Navy jet fighter, plowing through the Poconos-stand-up portion of his stump speech.

I've heard this shtick so many times by now that a kind of campaign echolalia has kicked in -- I find myself involuntarily blurting out McCain's punch lines before he even starts a joke. At present, we're about two minutes shy of a prison joke that ends with The food was a lot better in here when you were governor!

I clench my teeth, bracing for impact. Behind me, a pair of aging Soccer Moms in acrylic sweaters sing McCain's praises. "I can't even imagine being a prisoner of war," says Mom Number One. "It must be so hard."

"Yeah," agrees Number Two. "You know he won't surrender over there."

"Mm-hmm," says the first. Then, after a pause: "Oh, hey, you know what I watched yesterday? Saving Private Ryan. And We Were Soldiers."

"Oh, those are great war movies," says Mom Number Two. "Great war movies."

Another pause. Then, "Oh, I went to that new buffet," says Mom Number One. "The one with the salads. I have to say, I'm not that into sweetbreads."

I want to choke the life out of both of them. But how do you communicate to someone the sheer insanity of voting to bomb the fuck out of some distant country while you sit safe and cozy in the Virginia suburbs, evaluating sweetbreads -- just so the world can keep on feeling like the heroic war movies you rock yourself to sleep with on Sunday afternoons?

The answer is you can't. And that is one big reason why John McCain, defying the expectations of almost everyone who watched him last summer -- myself included -- has risen from the political dead to wrap up the GOP nomination. He's survived because Onward to Victory is the last great illusion the Republican Party has left to sell in this country, even to its own followers. They can't sell fiscal responsibility, they can't sell "values," they can't sell competence, they can't sell small government, they can't even sell the economy. All they have left to offer is this sad, dwindling, knee-jerk patriotism, a promise to keep selling world politics as a McHale's Navy rerun to a Middle America that wants nothing to do with realizing the world has changed since 1946.

The lesson of the McCain campaign is that one should never underestimate America's capacity for self-delusion. Balls-deep in one of the biggest foreign-policy catastrophes of all time, an arrogant military misadventure destined to make us infamous for a generation across a dozen cultures, minivan-driving suburban America is still waiting for Bill Holden to make it right by blowing up the Bridge on the River Kwai -- and returning, tanned and handsome, to get the girl with a mouth full of cool one-liners.

I scoot away from the Moms, knowing I can't win any argument here. McCain, meanwhile, is wrapping up the tale of an old soldier who trained a monkey to take his place on the front lines during World War II.

"So I said to him, 'I can see why you weren't promoted,' " says McCain. "And he says, 'That's not what made me mad. The monkey retired as an admiral!' "

The audience roars with laughter. We'll lick this Iraq thing yet!

According to current political wisdom, John McCain is "controversial" among Republicans because he lacks true conservative credentials. His main offenses, ostensibly, are a smattering of domestic-policy positions that defy the GOP's Limbaugh-Hannity orthodoxy: He took a public stand against the Spanish Inquisition, he shared a room with Ted Kennedy for a few hours to fashion a failed immigration bill, he passed a roundly criticized campaign-finance-reform bill, he accidentally deemed the Bush tax cuts insane out loud before realizing that this was a political error.

From the battering that McCain is taking lately from the likes of Limbaugh and skanky bitch-whore Ann Coulter, who vowed to campaign for Hillary if McCain gets the nomination, one wouldn't know that most of his supposed crimes were actually based on conservative principles. His opposition to the tax cuts, for instance, was based on fiscal responsibility -- i.e., a desire to avoid slashing revenues during a period of both high national debt and massive military spending ("I don't remember ever in the history of warfare when we cut taxes"). Only a Bush Republican would call insisting on actually having money before you spend it a lack of "true conservatism."

Even in McCain's ill-fated immigration initiative, which would have provided illegal residents with a path to citizenship, one can clearly see an essentially pragmatic, business-friendly nod to basic cultural and economic reality at work. Like George Bush himself, who tried for years to institute legal status for guest workers, McCain merely sought a means to legitimize the undocumented labor propping up American business. His real crime on immigration was saying things about Mexican illegals like, "These are God's children as well."

From torture ("Mistreatment of prisoners harms us more than our enemies") to the Dixie Chicks ("To restrain their trade because they exercised their right of free speech is remarkable"), McCain has repeatedly displayed an inability to connect with the bloodthirsty, emotional imperatives of the Limbaugh-Hannity line of thinking, in which all nuance and pragmatism must be dismissed in favor of an all-out crush-the-demon position. On some issues, in fact, McCain demonstrates a suspicious inclination toward actually solving the problem. This arrogant refusal to be a craven imbecile is what makes McCain suspect in the eyes of Limbaugh and Coulter, who are terrified at the prospect of a Republican president uninterested in book burnings.

Unfortunately, McCain has chosen to handle his conservative "problem" the way any self-respecting politician would: by changing his mind about everything he ever stood for. As I watch him campaign in Virginia and Maryland, it's hilarious to see him grit his teeth and try to work himself into applause lines like "The first thing we need to do is make the Bush tax cuts permanent!" He also mentions Ronald Reagan so often that his traveling press corps has to be getting ideas for a "Hi, Ron!" drinking game.

But for all his efforts to turn himself inside out for the mob, McCain still doesn't convince conservatives. In the politics of faith and emotion, you have to get it right the first time. "It bothers me," says Zack Skelton, a Huckabee supporter who came to see McCain in Virginia, when asked about McCain's change of heart on abortion rights. "Also, the issue of illegal immigration. I don't like that he had to change his mind."

To me, though, what's strangest of all is how irrelevant such positions seem when it comes to McCain. For all of his supposed unreliability in the domestic arena, McCain may be even more crazy than the Republican mainstream on the issue that matters most of all: the war in Iraq and war in general. My guess is that Republican voters are not going to mind that McCain's candidacy might drive a stake through the heart of the weenie fascism of Rush and Hannity, once they figure out that the candidate is a solid bet to deliver them World War III. And that should scare the shit out of us all.

Around the time McCain was rising from the dead to win the New Hampshire primary, the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that 151,000 Iraqis had been killed during the first three years of the U.S. occupation. In a campaign season, it should have been news that an authoritative study places the number of Iraqis who died because of America's war in the six-figure range. But it wasn't. Do a search on "New England Journal of Medicine" and "Iraq" on Google News and you get a mere 149 hits, most of which refer to another Journal
Do a search on the phrase "surge is working," by contrast, and you get 430 hits. On the campaign trail, we hear every day that the surge is a success -- an unchallenged bit of conventional wisdom that graduated to the level of cultural fact in the Los Angeles debate between Hillary and Obama, when Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates if a plan for withdrawal might mean that "all of that progress would be for naught."

An Iraqi might ask what progress we're risking, exactly, against the backdrop of 151,000 civilian deaths, but, hey, we're not Iraqi. We're American, and it's this American myopia that helped revive McCain's campaign. Back in the summer, when McCain boldly launched a "No Surrender" tour while all the other GOP candidates were fleeing the war issue like bitches, reporters thought the old man had finally gone senile. How else to explain a politician lashing himself to the mast of such an unpopular issue?

But McCain's entire career has been dedicated to the idea that America must always have the right to solve its problems by force. Throughout his political career, he has argued for increased use of force in virtually every military engagement the U.S. has been involved in since Vietnam. He complained about Bill Clinton's "excessively restricted air campaign" in Kosovo, campaigning strenuously for a ground invasion. During the 1994 flap over Pyongyang's nuclear program, he called for "more forceful, coercive action." Even before the latest Iraq War, McCain argued way back in 1999 that the only way to deal with Saddam Hussein was "to strike disproportionate to the provocation."

The most frightening example of McCain's fondness for force is on display in his own book, Faith of My Fathers, when he complains about the politicians who refused to allow pilots like him to attack, say, Soviet ships unloading arms in Vietnamese port cities. "We thought our civilian commanders were complete idiots," he writes.

Bombing Soviet ships, of course, would probably have started World War III, but McCain's vision, then and now, encompasses war as a way of life. There is significant evidence that McCain believes war is something righteous and necessary, a tonic for the national soul, intrinsically "noble" irrespective of context (he is still one of the only politicians to apply that word to the Iraq conflict). That is why it's no joke when McCain says casually, "There's gonna be other wars," or when he sings, "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran." We have to assume that he will jump at the chance to expand this conflict and hit those politically sensitive targets his "complete idiot" civilian commanders once barred him from going after in Vietnam.

Back in 1999, McCain concluded a speech at Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire by shouting, "Never again do we send our men and women to fight and die in foreign conflicts unless our goal is victory!" Which is interesting, because that is exactly -- almost word for motherfucking word -- how McCain ended his latest speeches on the campaign trail in Maryland and Virginia. In other words, John McCain knew his answer to the Iraq War mess before it even happened. For good measure, he insisted that "only military men like General Petraeus" have the right to say when soldiers will come home from Iraq -- not, he added with a sneer, "some civilian running for president." Nor, presumably, America's civilian population, which is being asked to send its sons and daughters to kill and die in a faraway country.

No matter how moderate McCain seems on domestic issues, on the issue of war he's stark raving mad. He's a wounded, crusading Ahab, and civilian command and diplomatic restraint are his Great White Whale. If he gets put in charge of a Middle Eastern war that is easily widened, it's whirlpool time for all of us.

In a wider sense, McCain's candidacy is a referendum on America's fantastic self-image when it comes to our use of force. He is offering voters the chance to re-litigate these failures (both military and moral) in Vietnam and Iraq that muddle the cinematic happy ending. When I ask Sam Wilder, a sixty-eight-year-old veteran who supports McCain, if he thinks occupying Iraq is a good way to persuade Muslims not to attack us, he scoffs.

"We're not an occupying force," he says.

"How's that?" I ask. "We invaded the country and occupied it. We're ruling a foreign country by force. That's the definition ...." "We're there training their force," Wilder says.

"But we're also there occupying the country," I say. "In an objective sense, we're occupying. A hundred thousand people are dead." "Well," he says, "that wasn't the idea."

That idea -- the principle of fighting first, thinking later and never, ever saying sorry -- is what matters most to conservatives, and John McCain may be its last line of defense. If he fights hard enough to save it, you can bet that even Ann Coulter will come around to supporting him.

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