John McCain: The Devil You Don't Know

John McCain's insistence that Americans know so much more about him than they do about Barack Obama echoes Hillary Clinton's "tested and vetted" rhetoric, and is an equally misleading preemptive strike to convince the media there is nothing more to see.

Like Clinton, McCain has his share of shabbily scrutinized scandals, but, at least as importantly, it is his political positions that remain utterly confusing. That is quite a feat after 26 years in Congress and two presidential runs under his belt: it is hard to think of another veteran politician whose political philosophy is as murky as McCain's (with just one term as governor, Mitt Romney does not qualify.) This has usually been seen as a good thing: unfettered by partisanship and rigid orthodoxy, McCain supposedly gives us common sense solutions to the problems conservatives and liberals are unable to tackle objectively. McCain's much-vaunted "straight talk" usually takes the form of a confident or humorous sound-bite happily regurgitated by an ever-pliant media. The problem is that hours, days or months later he will typically give an equally confident or humorous sound bite on the same topic, but one that is often mutually exclusive from his original position.

It is completely understandable that many Republicans can't stand McCain: he is hypocritical, holier than thou, disloyal and inconsistent. He won a plurality of the primary vote in a particularly weak field, and he has clearly not won the hearts, or even the minds, of most conservatives, struggling until the end to win 70% of an uncontested vote. But this alone should not be enough to make him the darling of independents, let alone Democrats: when he does have a clear position, there is not one issue on which he agrees with the majority, or even a large minority, of either group.
With a carefully cultivated veneer of "independence," McCain has been able to bob and weave, leaving an impression of moderation, and even bipartisanship, to the many voters who weren't looking closely. From abortion to Iraq, campaign finance to gay rights, and everything in between, McCain has succeeded in playing both sides in a way that makes Bill Clinton look amateurish.

McCain overwhelmingly picked up the pro-choice vote in the Republican primary, despite the presence of Rudy Giuliani, who is actually in favor a woman's right to choose, and Romney, who also was, kind of, until recently. In New Hampshire, half the voters, normally a pretty well informed bunch, were unaware of McCain's position on abortion ("Roe v Wade was a bad decision.") Even among Republicans and independents, this was not necessarily a problem, as pro-choice voters constitute a more significant share of that electorate than generally thought, especially in some of the larger, urban states. But in a general election, with a number of Clinton voters, women in particular, disenchanted with Obama, it becomes crucial that McCain's anti-choice position be clearly understood. And that the fact he is not as strident as, say, Rick Santorum does not make him more favorable to choice.

Abortion is one of the more glaring examples of the disconnect McCain has been able to establish between his actual positions and voters' perception. Campaign finance, in many ways, is another. Few remember or know about McCain's involvement in the sleazy Keating Five financial scandal, which he says prompted his change of heart on campaign finance. In truth, McCain, a dreadful fundraiser who is overly reliant on his wealthy wife's perks, recently rewrote the laws completely to his advantage (including the loophole for use of a family member's jet.) A crusade to make campaign finance more McCain-friendly is hardly the progressive reform the Senator makes it appear to be. And, of course, the fact that his campaign staff has been replete with some of the sleaziest lobbyists in America does not bode well for the spirit of the reform.

Besides campaign finance, economic issues in general are not McCain's strength, as he recently made clear. At least on this topic, it is difficult to find too much inconsistency, as McCain essentially has no opinion whatsoever. He is equally as dumbfounded on environmental issues: McCain's relative global warming bona fides are belied by his indifference to the looming disaster in the Everglades, one of the more pressing "green" issues in the US, not to say in Florida, a swing state in which Obama may be struggling.

On Iraq, McCain appears to have received a majority of anti-war Republicans' vote, a fantastic achievement for a cheerleader of the permanent surge. Now, realizing that his Vietnam war record will not be enough in the general election to make up for his support of the war in Iraq, he is trying a new tack: he hates war, he says in a new ad. Rather than make a powerful statement about the horrors of war from a former POW, it simply looks like the fortuitous switch that it is. This war was necessary (although, we are now told, hateful) but the execution was bungled (that is, until the president listened to him and sent yet more troops.)

How McCain feels about Christian fundamentalists, and religion in general, is also a great mystery. Not so long ago, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were "agents of intolerance". This has all changed: McCain now happily accepts endorsements from anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic pastors and pays homage to Falwell's Liberty University as if nothing had ever happened.

On same-sex unions, including marriage, it is equally hard to grasp what it is that McCain is for, or against. This is considered great by some, including a group of sad and dwindling gay Republicans. But, again, just because McCain doesn't publicly say gay people will burn in hell, this does NOT mean that he is in any way in favor of anything remotely approaching equality, as evidenced by his opposition to pretty much any form of benefits, civil unions, etc.

Twenty-five years younger, Obama has, of course, had less time to change his positions the way most politicians do sooner or later. But the problem is not only the extent to which McCain has "adapted" over the years, as it is how quickly he can change his mind and, when he doesn't change his mind, how aptly he is able to obfuscate what he really stands for. If voters were aware of his positions and chose to overlook some of them because they liked the overall package, that would be one thing. However, as some of the numbers quoted above illustrate, many voters have no idea what McCain stands for, and seem happy in their ignorance. By November, it should be clear where both McCain and Obama stand and, given the choice, the Obama package should be far more attractive to them, even if every one of his positions isn't.