The death of John McCain has resulted in the usual gushing tributes that are given to almost any long-serving American politician. I never bought into his self-promoted image of being a principled maverick, bucking party orthodoxy and forging his own path. McCain was in reality a faithful follower of the party line, voting with it on almost every issue and in addition being one of the worst warmongera. I wrote about what McCain was really like back in 2008. To his credit, he did discourage the crude race baiting of the Republican voters when in the 2008 election campaign they recklessly brought up the Marxist-Kenyan-Muslim tropes about Barack Obama, the kind of thing that has now become routine in the Republican party. It is because Donald Trump is so extremely awful that ordinary awful Republicans like McCain look better in comparison.
But McCain’s name will forever be linked with his fateful and disastrous choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, which he himself later regretted. He announced the decision on August 29, 2008 in a move that took everyone by surprise. My immediate reaction to the choice was posted on this blog within a couple of days.
Someone once said that the most common last words expressed by reckless men before they do something stupid is: “Hey guys, watch this!” The McCain decision strikes me as exactly one of those ideas, something that looks bold and daring and exciting in the heat of a brainstorming session where a few people are trying to “think outside box” and make a stunning impression, but where all the negatives only show up in the cold light of day. It is then that you realize that there is a very thin line separating ‘thinking outside the box’ from ‘being out of your mind’.
I think that this decision is going to haunt McCain. His and her ardent supporters are trying to put on a good face and saying that this move is a ‘game changer’. I think they are right but not in a good way for him. It risks changing a narrow race into a blowout victory for Obama.
And so it has proved, with McCain wearing Palin like an albatross around his neck, though for the longest time he tried to maintain that it was a good choice.
Shortly after the election in 2008, I wrote that McCain’s choice of Palin had triggered a long-term shift in the Republican party for the worse.
I think it is now obvious that the vetting of Palin prior to her selection to be McCain’s running mate was cursory to the point of being almost non-existent. I am almost certain that he did not realize that the elevation of Palin would open a Pandora’s box of expectations of the social values bloc of his party and did not anticipate the outpouring of religious fervor that would accompany her selection. For the first time, the religious base has had one of them be part of the top leadership. Now that they have got so close to the driver’s seat, they are not going to return to the back of the bus. I think they will insist on a true believer as the next leader of the party.
This is where the battle lines are going to be drawn within the Republican party. What is happening now is that the culture wars that were used in the fights against Democrats is becoming a weapon to be used within the Republican Party, to determine who the ‘real Republicans’ are. The Southern strategy tactics of dividing the country on cultural issues that worked so well for the Republicans on the national level for nearly four decades, has now suddenly turned in on itself and is being used to divide up the party internally in order to see who will lead it and in what direction it will go.
We have a straight line from Palin to Donald Trump and McCain was instrumental in drawing that line. Palin and Trump are both cut from the same cloth, vain and narcissistic people who despite their ignorance nonetheless have supreme confidence in their own abilities and also have no hesitation in appealing to the base instincts of a large number of people.
That, ultimately, will be McCain’s legacy.