Despite the campaign’s sharp break in Obama’s direction in the last week of September, we need only remember the sharp break in McCain’s favor in the first two weeks of the month to know that elections can change quickly. That said, I’ve been thinking over the last few days that if John McCain loses this election he will have lost much more than the presidency. His reputation as an honest and honorable politician will be wrecked, I suspect, for good — particularly among centrist and independent voters and the centrist commentator class in New York and Washington.
In his current guise, McCain would likely say that what the folks along the Northeast corridor think of him doesn’t matter. But I don’t think anyone who knows him believes that for a second. The man has spent the last fifteen years of his life assiduously cultivating these people. This after all is what people mean when they used to say that the press was McCain’s ‘base’. It’s a big thing for his political viability and his ego.
Today at work I was flipping through a review copy of Elizabeth Drew’s Citizen McCain. I’m sure there are critical passages buried in there. And my point is not to criticize Drew. Though I was never a supporter, I once had a very different view of the man than I do today. But it came right out of the McCain maverick narrative that has so dominated elite political journalism back into the mid-1990s. That read of McCain just dripped off the page.
But little more than a week ago she shows up in the Politico with a sort of public recantation of her one time admiration, concluding, “McCain’s recent conduct of his campaign – his willingness to lie repeatedly (including in his acceptance speech) and to play Russian roulette with the vice-presidency, in order to fulfill his long-held ambition – has reinforced my earlier, and growing, sense that John McCain is not a principled man. In fact, it’s not clear who he is.”
Though not summed up in one neat essay, Joe Klein’s change of mind about McCain strikes me as similar. As do those of a slew of other marquee pundits who’ve either written as much publicly or told me as much privately.
Now, on the one hand, politics isn’t or shouldn’t be about catering to or pandering to the fancies of prestige pundits. But you might have told McCain that over the last ten years. And in any case, it’s been the key to his ascent in national politics over the last fifteen years. And you can see a similar drop off in voters’ assumptions about his character, honesty and decency in recent polls.
When Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton in 1996, if anything it enhanced his reputation and popularity. His reputation, what people thought of him, wasn’t wrecked or even damaged by the campaign. The future seems quite different for McCain if he loses this election.
My verdict may be a severe one but I think a lot of people — a lot of former admirers — are coming around to agreeing with the general outlines. McCain has revealed himself as a liar well outside the permissive standards applied to politicians. He’s shown himself to be reckless to the point of instability, repeatedly putting the country at risk (exploiting the Georgia crisis, picking Palin, storming the bailout negotiations) for transparently self-serving reasons. And in too many ways to count, he’s conducted his campaign in disgraceful and dishonorable ways.
Perhaps the most telling thing is that McCain was willing flush that reputation down the drain, betray everything he pretended to stand for, all to be president. If he wins, it will all have been worth it. He was happy to sacrifice one for the other. And now he may end up with neither.