Overshadowed by the furor

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Overshadowed by the furor of the Jeffords defection last week was
the surprising news that John
McCain
was one of only two Republicans to vote against the final Bush tax
cut. (The other was Lincoln
Chafee
.)

From the perspective of last year’s primary campaign this shouldn’t have been
surprising: McCain’s opposition to the Bush plan was a major part of his
message. But McCain seemed pretty on-board with the tax cut until fairly late in
the game. And voting against the final bill has a particular import: It was
going to pass anyway; it was a free vote. So voting against was not meant
to affect the outcome, but to send a signal.

This very
interesting article
in Saturday’s Washington Post says that McCain is
seriously considering leaving the GOP to become an Independent – not simply to
fiddle with the Senate calculus, but with a view toward a possible Independent
run against Bush in 2004. The authors also delve into McCain’s discussions with
Democratic Senators Daschle, Kennedy and Edwards about a possible party switch,
Daschle’s
trip
to McCain’s Arizona homestead this weekend, and McCain’s meetings with
various New Democrat policy types.

All of which again raises the recurring question: just what sort of pol is
John McCain these days? The best language the Post’s Edsall and Milbank
have for him is to call him the head of the “embattled progressive wing of the
Republican party.” And that’s well enough since that’s about all our current
political vocabulary allows. But is John McCain really like Jim Jeffords and
Linc Chafee?



They may come down similarly on a series of policy questions. But the basic
difference is clear even if it’s difficult to articulate. The best way to
describe it may be to says that there’s something ‘soft’ about the
Jeffords-Chafee sort of moderate Republicanism, something ‘hard’ about McCain’s.

So if McCain were to leave the Republicans and try to head up some sort of
third force in American politics, or try to run for president on that basis,
what exactly would that politics be? Especially considering that McCain’s policy
positions now seem very, very similar to those of the centrist-progressive wing
of the Democratic party?

Part of what’s going on here isn’t so much about public policy or political
strategy, as it’s a matter of political gestalt. And political
gestalt, or perhaps better to say the unifying principle of a politics, is often
much more important than the particular shopping list of policy positions a pol
endorses.

Clintonism, as it evolved over the course of the nineties, was rooted in a
politics of empathy. Wags made endless cracks about that line “I feel your
pain.” But that was an important line – and what was behind it was key to Bill
Clinton’s immense power and resiliency as president.

There’s a question that pollsters always ask voters when sizing up their
views about a given politician. The question is generally phrased something like
this: does politician X care about and/or understand the kind of problems
someone like you faces in their daily life. A pollster would put it more
artfully, but you get the idea.

Bill Clinton always scored very well on this question. Even when he did
pitifully on personal approval. Do you respect him? Is he honest? Etc. And that
was the key to his political strength – something Republicans never quite
grasped. The question measures the politics of empathy. And Clinton had it in
spades.

Clinton transformed the presidency and the nation’s politics along these
lines. Some of the theater of this was in the ubiquitous presidential rope lines
and the flying in to commune with disaster victims. But on a broader
programmatic level he crafted a politics of feeling and empathy, one which was
about crafting policies – small ones, usually – to address the mundane needs
people faced in their daily lives. This was a sort of retail politics which, as
Jacob
Weisberg
once noted, amounted to a governorization of the presidency. Your
parents can’t pay for their prescription drugs? We’ve got a program. Kids’ class
sizes are too big. We’ve got a program for that too. Need to learn how to run
some new machine to get a new job? We’ll hook you up!

This change goes far past Bill Clinton and now saturates almost all of our
politics. Republicans and Democrats alike have to play this game. One need only
look at the rhetoric of our new president, if not his actions, to see the deep
impress of Clintonism.

In any case, when Bill Kristol and
Company
started casting about for something they called National Greatness
Conservatism I suspect one of the things motivating them was the recognition
that conservatives could simply never beat Democrats at this game. If the
politics of empathy is a house, it’s floorboards tilt Democratic. Republicans
are never going to out-feel Democrats or be able to offer up more programs.
Compassionate Conservatism really just amounts to ‘I kinda feel your pain.’

What was necessary was not so much a different raft of policies, as a
different operating principle. And the logical conservative response to a
politics of empathy and feeling would be a politics of sacrifice, austerity,
assertion and perhaps also virility and masculinity. In many ways, that’s just
what National Greatness Conservatism is. It particularly explains the emphasis
on assertive foreign policy, military might, and national service.

Now, having said all this, McCain and the National Greatness folks both
started their journeys separately before meeting up and deciding that they might
be going to the same place. And one can start out moving in a political
direction for one reason and then get pulled in by other political gravities
along the way. That seems to have happened to both McCain and the Kristol crowd, though in
somewhat different ways.

So McCain may look similar to the Democrats on policy after policy. And
increasingly he is. But this difference of mentality or gestalt is just as much
what’s in play here as where McCain comes down on the patients’ bill of rights.

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