PSST…McCain is an unprincipled reactionary
Is there any more pathetic spectacle than the ongoing crush that some centrist liberals have on John McCain? Even liberals who one would think (Iraq excepted, of course) would know better, like Jon Chait, have fallen for his shtick. But given what’s transpired in the past four years, this mash note written by Jacob "Lord of the Eyelash" Weisberg is particularly embarrassing. Letting no evidence or logic stand in his way, remains unshakably convinced that McCain is really a social liberal: "the literal-minded left has McCain all wrong" sez Weisberg:
…McCain’s smoke signals spell out something different–an unsuccessful attempt to back away from a mandatory position he no longer believes in, if he ever really did. In August 1999, McCain said, "I’d love to see a point where Roe v. Wade is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations." This wasn’t a fluke comment–McCain said the same thing more than once. But his trial balloon was quickly shot down by the theo-cons, prompting him to abandon the experiment. The same thing happened again following McCain’s suggestion that the nutty Republican platform plank on the topic be rewritten, and again after he made the comment that if his daughter–who was 15 at the time–became pregnant, it would be up to her to decide whether to have an abortion. Despite his professions of fidelity, the pro-life lobby knows better than to trust him. Pro-choicers should similarly recognize that McCain is a hostage, not a hostage-taker, on this issue.
As Ace Rothstein said, there’s that explanation, and then there’s one that makes sense. Yes, McCain has, in the past, said that while he disagrees with Roe it might not be immediately practical to overturn it, and he has taken the radical position that it might not be desirable to pass a Constitutional amendment that would make abortion first-degree murder in all 50 states (as would, of course, any major Republican politician if the thing had any chance of passing.) On the other hand, he has recently come out in favor of South Dakota’s draconian (and illegal) law banning all abortions. Weisberg wants us to believe that the latter (which is not actually inconsistent with anything he’s said in the past) is the pander. Why should we believe that? Isn’t it just as likely that his previous comments were careful panders to the pro-choice majority, and the more recent comments reflect his actual beliefs? (Remember, in the 2000 primaries the religious right was already behind the other candidate, so his rational strategy was to appeal to voters who don’t care for the theocratic right.) If you, unlike Weisberg, don’t start with an a priori belief that McCain secretly agrees with you and all evidence to the contrary is therefore to be rejected, I don’t see why we would immediately accept that he’s only "pandering" now.
But wait: I left out the most crucial part. If there were just dueling statements, then Weisberg might have an argument. But as he concedes, McCain’s "literal-minded" critics "usually begin by complaining about his down-the-line anti-abortion voting record." Well, sorry to be literal-minded and all, but isn’t his voting record kind of, you know, important? Weisberg is asking is to believe that, despite being a stated pro-lifer with a 0% NARAL rating, he’s really a closet pro-choicer. This is just silly. McCain may say it’s not practical to overturn Roe, but if he had his way Roe would already be gone, as he voted for Robert Bork to be the 5th vote to overturn it, and of course also voted for Thomas and Alito. It’s his pro-choice feints, not his consistent pro-life record, that’s the dishonest pander.
And there’s a bigger problem here, what one may call the George Wallace problem. When it comes to politicians, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: what matters is the polices they enact, not their subjective beliefs. Maybe Weisberg is right that McCain is a "hostage" to the pro-life movement, just as Wallace was not so much a virulent racist as someone who played one when it was politically profitable. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. Whether he’s a "hostage" or "hostage taker" is irrelevant as long as his voting record is Santorumesque. Weisberg seems to think that after the primaries he will no longer be "hostage" to the pro-life movement, and will be free to tear of the mask and be the pro-choicer that appears nowhere in his public statements or voting record. But, of course, this isn’t true–Presidents are also subject to political pressures. The modern GOP strategy for winning federal elections is to use a motivated base to overcome counter-majoritarian positions on many domestic issues, and McCain–who has a history of emphasizing extremely unpopular cuts to middle-class entitlements rather than more popular tax cuts–will be particularly beholden to a high turnout for both election and re-election, and particularly unlikely to cross a base that doesn’t trust him. If he’s not willing to be anything but a hardcore anti-choicer as an unbeatable Senator, what makes you think he’ll suddenly turn into one when he needs a high turnout to have a decent shot of winning? Whatever he subjectively thinks about abortion, there’s every reason to believe that as President he’ll continue his reactionary policies on abortion and countless other issues when he’s in office. People waiting for the "real" moderate McCain to emerge are living on ice-cream castles in the air.