The Last Action Hero
For John McCain in 2008
By Ben Domenech Posted in 2008 | John McCain — Comments (64) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
So here we are, at the turn of the tide: one vote from winning the court; two-to-three good years from winning the largest stage of the war; the pressures of the Oval Office at their dramatic peak. A critical moment in our nation’s history, time for an individual with the strength and courage to do what the moment demands.
In 2008, I support John McCain.
“But…but…” my friends say incredulously, “But John McCain is crazy!”
“Perhaps,” I answer. “But you say this as if it’s a bad thing?”
Grab a drink, and read on.
It’s true: stubborn and irascible, John McCain’s living rendition of Don Quixote has been infuriating to watch. He always had a bit of the mad saint of the valley to him—a quality that has only increased with age. His breaks from conservative doctrine are manifold, but fewer in number than those of several of his fellow Senators. Yet McCain’s breaks seem so much greater than those of, say, John Warner—why? Because when he goes on his separate path, he damn well wants you to know it, and know that he thinks you and his other conservative opponents to be inches from Lucifer for your damnable orthodoxy.
Or as Lileks put it: “I like John McCain. He seems like the sort of guy you could have a beer with, right up to the moment where he smashes the bottle on the table and jams it in your face over something you said six years ago.”
It all used to have an endearing Abe Simpson quality to it—“Dear Mr. President: There are too many states. Please eliminate three.”—but there is a ferocity that has emerged in recent years that has led to countless run-ins, of the sort staffers share in loud whispers after too many drinks. They tend to remind me less of the befuddled Abe than of Richard Burton as Henry VIII responding to Woolsey in defiance of Rome—“How far would I go, you ask? I would cleave the earth in two like an apple, and fling the halves into the VOID!”
Yet this is also what I’ve always admired about McCain, even if conservatives curse him in the course of legislative battle: he is the same man, whichever side he is on. He brings that same infuriating passion to our cause when his inner compass has led him to alliance. His support of the surge confounded the glitterati of the MSM, who gave him every opportunity to break with the president in a fashion that would’ve led to countless more cover appearances for the late-night self-pleasuring of pimply interns of the New Republic. And yet he could not be agreeable to them, as tempting as the doyennes and the cameras were: he rambled through, grousing yet triumphant, middle fingers raised to Rumsfeld on the right and the New York Times on the left. Even if you dislike McCain, you have to admit: It was a glorious moment for him.
Of course, there is another candidate who shared many of these admirable traits: Rudy Giuliani. It might surprise a few of you to know that hizzoner was my first choice, and first choice by a mile, in this election. No, Rudy's not a full-bore conservative, but we thought George W. Bush was, and we've all seen how that has turned out. The rationale for me was simple: the next four years will be very, very rough for the Republican Party as a whole. The next President will likely be working opposite large Democrat majorities in the House and the Senate. In such a scenario, having a President who does not fear telling Nancy Pelosi to shove it—in fact, ENJOYS the very act and revels in the consequences—is enormously advantageous. In New York City, he survived by keeping his head on a swivel, which is what you gotta do when you find yourself in a vicious cockfight. We could use that in Washington.
Nearly two years ago, I started working in a voluntary capacity alongside others to share the perspective of a dedicated social conservative with the nascent Giuliani campaign, arguing that—with a few internally consistent moves rightward on matters of judicial policy—Rudy could establish himself as the consensus second choice for many social conservatives. He could issue a sterling call for a New Federalism, as Dan McLaughlin has eloquently offered—that while personally pro-choice, he believed Roe to be bad law, wrongly decided, and that every American should have the right to have their voices heard on such an issue by voting in their state. He could argue that it was high time the federal government got back to the business of defending the country, not squabbling over marriage and stem cell funding. With such a position, I still believe that after Brownback, Huckabee, and others inevitably faded, Rudy could have been the consensus pick.
Of course, Rudy’s campaign could easily ignore me or any of the other dirty web folks saying this, but it was advice echoed publicly by genuinely smart people: Patrick Ruffini, Michael Barone and Fred Barnes among others. His campaign chose to ignore all this advice. Instead, they started believing their own name-ID-elevated tracking polls about their frontrunner status. I sat and watched in Houston as Rudy unequivocally passed on the opportunity to become a consensus candidate. They ran the most short-sighted, parochial, and—frankly—flat-out wimpy campaign I’ve ever seen at the national level without the inclusion of Dick Lugar. And that’s saying something.
It’s not like Rudy was the only disappointment, of course. This cycle has been full of them. The only candidate to overperform, as you look over the field, has been Huckabee. As a naturally gifted communicator with good instincts and an evangelistic temperament, I think that people need to recognize that Huckabee represents the views of a significant number of people in the Republican Party, whether they like it or not. If he isn’t chosen for Veep this time, I have no doubt he’ll run again for POTUS in the future, and probably with the Tom Joad impression tempered a bit. A McCain-Huckabee ticket would make Rush Limbaugh’s head explode, as it would for many of our readers, but it’s a ticket that would fully satisfy a good 75% of Republicans, if not more. That’s the reality, folks, and if you don’t like it, then get to changing it.
With Rudy’s ship sinking, Fred a non-factor, and Huckabee hampered by lack of foreign policy chops and a shoestring budget, the opportunity was there for McCain—once the establishment pick, imploded and then reborn, to once again don the armor and save the unseen Dulcinea and her doubtless properly filed FEC paperwork.
We are left with two realistically possible nominees, with hopes for a brokered convention dashed. In 2008, the question has become: do you support the calculating unprincipled friend, or the passionate principled foe?
For me, it came down to three choices, made on three critical fronts: McCain’s decision to side with President Bush on the surge, with President Bush on Alito and Roberts, and against President Bush on the largest entitlement in the history of America. In each of these areas, we were and are agreed—and in each, McCain displayed the courage and patriotism he has always possessed—the strength of character to do what he believed was right, regardless of whether it was popular.
There are other areas, yes. It’s true that when history calls out for a strong choice, I often say “No!” as McCain, onscreen, declared “Yes!” And in response to that same demand, Mitt Romney has answered loud and clear in his four years in elected office: "Present!"
We may rightly ask: what would John McCain's first 100 days look like? I'm sure any of us could sit down and outline them in rough but accurate fashion—the good and the bad are well known to us by now, and we can anticipate them with all the regular rhythms and sound effects of a 1980s sitcom. We would have to balance against him on some things and cheer him on in others. We know him as a foe and a friend, and know him well.
On the other hand, what would Mitt Romney's first 100 days look like? I cannot begin to answer that question, because it's ludicrous to conceive of this as even a possibility. It simply will not happen, ever. The man has the highest negative ratings of any candidate in the field not named Hillary, and she still beats him by an easy margin—one that will only increase as the Oprah-fueled excitement gap widens.
After two-plus years of having Candidate Mitt before us, conservatives have barely scratched the surface of this candidate's remarkable political liabilities. His weaknesses are not just small or needling—they are epic. More troubling for those who value winning, though, is the fact that Romney campaign's reactions to assaults are easily foreseen and more easily outmaneuvered; the predictability of out-populisting Huckabee in Michigan followed by blasting John McCain’s conservative position on Medicare in Florida is the hallmark of this movable feast of a campaign (corn dogs here, caviar there, and be sure to peel the skin off that fried chicken).
As general election strategy goes, Barack Obama would have Romney twisted in all directions, with strong words and an easy smile; the Clinton machine would dismantle him piece by piece with a singsong sledgehammer, leaving bits of bone and blood as bleak warnings to future would-be CEO-politicians. The end result is the same: when he’s been chewed by the machine, Mitt Romney will come to symbolize every worst cliche of corporate greed and offense, be reviled as out of touch and inconsistent, and be mocked at length as the whitest white man in America.
Allow me a moment to be blunt: The Democrats will hand Mitt Romney his ass on a silver platter, and force him to wear it as a hat. His sunny demeanor unchanged, he will give a strong farewell speech thanking his supporters, and give the experience a solid B+.
In 2000 I wrote that Joe Lieberman was a man forever at war with his conscience—Mitt Romney battles his very self on what seems like a daily basis. At least Lieberman's struggle was interesting and soulful—with Romney, one might as well watch varying shades of astroturf compete for territory. Find me the one issue that Mitt Romney will fall on his sword for, and it would be the first. He is not just untested and unmeasured by adversity or serious political firefights (people speak about him “saving the Olympics” as if it was something that mattered; guess what? I’ve been to the Olympics; the Olympics are the United Nations of sport, where everybody gets together to hate on America; nobody actually likes the Olympics, not even Costas), he has the CEO’s strong aversity to the very concept of things falling apart. Equipped with the flat, even optimism that only the gift of a silver spoon and prep school makeout sessions in the bushes near the quad at Cranbrook-Kingswood or Phillips-Exeter can bring to a man's life, he comes before us as one who has never risked his all for any cause without having a fallback, who has never overcome a vice, who has never wanted for anything.
American voters are fickle creatures, but with great consistency, they recognize such poll-tested waffle-patterned on-demand candidates as being either naïve, otherworldly, or false. With Mitt Romney, would-be heir to the “once adamantly pro-choice” Ronald Reagan (“I was an Independent during Reagan-Bush, I don’t want to take us back to Reagan-Bush”), they may well judge him as all three combined. In another political day, candidates of his ilk won with regularity; they still develop a train of guppy fish lackies in some circles—yet that was before people’s inauthentic comments were fodder for the internet grind, and Romney talking about “seeing the Patriots win the World Series” would get repeated on CNN, Comedy Central, and ESPN News for the next 48 hours, and sent via YouTube to 100,000 people in mere moments. “Conservatives are such rich white idiots,” they will say, and move on.
The Reagan coalition has and will survive many things. But can it survive the total loss of one of its strongest remaining assets—the authentic, consistent, principled leadership it represents? Make no mistake: Clinton or Obama know Mitt Romney's weaknesses, and they know those of the Republican base as well. They know the opportunity he represents to slice the Reagan legacy away from the Republican Party—a well-manicured pretender to the mantle who gets by on pancake makeup, eyebrow waxing, and hair gel.
So here we are, at the turn of the tide—and you go to the polls with the candidates you have, not the candidates you want. Saint John McCain of the Campaign-Finance Cross versus Willard of the North, well-mannered Ken Doll? The choice is an easy one for me. Let’s help old Don Quixote into the saddle one more time, and set him on his merry way, to win or lose with him.
The Reagan coalition survived Read my lips. It survived Bob Dole's peanut butter. It survived compassionate conservatism and its kid stepbrother national greatness. And it will survive John McCain and everything he will do as our nominee and as president. In fact—in a twisted version of the ancient Vulcan proverb “Only Nixon could go to China”—only McCain can save it.
They will say the coalition is dead—but we will know better. We know it only sleeps. We will cast our votes knowing that the day will come, four years from now, when a new leader, one who knows what the shining city truly means, stands in front of the fresh-dug tomb, and calls into the blackness, as if to Lazarus—"Come out!"
And when we hear it, we will rise from out of our stupor, dust cobwebs from our arms, stumble to the door, our eyes blinking in the sunlight … and we will know our day has come.
It's okay, you can smile. The bastards won't know what hit 'em.