Regardless of your political affiliation, the prospect of an Obama-McCain showdown is exciting. The two men could hardly be more different. Obama is youthful, exuberant and, in many ways, one of the most unique persons to ever seek the presidency. His father was Kenyan, while his mother hails from Kansas. He grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii but also spent four of his formative years in Jakarta, Indonesia. In addition to his international background, he possesses degrees from two of the most elite educational institutions in the United States -- Columbia University and Harvard Law School. His otherworldly charisma, extraordinary intellect and oratorical power have enabled him to come within a hair's breath of spoiling the Clintons' widely anticipated return to the White House, much to the shock of the most powerful Democratic party insiders. Even if his bid for the presidency fails, he is undoubtedly the first American political phenomenon of the twenty-first century.
Conversely, McCain's pitch for the Presidency is comfortable and familiar, grounding itself in the strong principles of mainstream American conservatism. At nearly 71 years of age, the senior senator from Arizona is older and battle-tested -- politically and militarily. He is a Vietnam veteran who endured nearly five-and-a-half years of captivity in the infamous "Hanoi Hotel." He likes low taxes, small government and free market solutions to America's most pressing problems. He has a lifetime rating of 83.6 from the American Conservative Union.
If you listened to talk radio, however, you would come away convinced that McCain is a lily-livered traitor to conservatism, a liberal wolf in sheep's clothing. But why? Even if the above is (admittedly) a simplification of McCain's political philosophy, it seems generally accurate, and it begs the obvious question: Since McCain's politics are ostensibly in lockstep with mainstream conservative America, why is he regularly portrayed as a "maverick"? Indeed, the vile with which prominent conservative commentators have attacked him seems way out of whack.
McCain has certainly strayed from the party line on a few key issues, especially at the beginning of Bush's tenure in office. He was one of two Republicans to vote against Bush's tax cuts, and he also opposed the President and the G.O.P. leadership on climate change legislation, campaign finance reform and immigration. But it is also important to remember that nearly all of McCain's opposition to the White House faded after September 11 terrorist attacks.
He is unflinching in his commitment to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though he voted against Bush's tax cuts in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005, he suddenly saw the light (of another presidential bid?) in 2006 and is now a staunch supporter of extending tax cuts he once saw as detrimental to both the middle class and the War on Terror. He is pro-life. He supports school vouchers, capital punishment, mandatory sentencing guidelines for federal judges and the No Child Left Behind Act. He is a vocal opponent of torture, but one of the Senate's most vocal proponents for a strong Patriot Act.
Indeed, McCain's politics are largely in lockstep with mainstream American conservatism, but the outcry over his (all but assured) nomination reinforces the problematic notion that McCain is a closet liberal. Since a large part of Obama's appeal derives from his ability to attract independents, the McCain as maverick myth spells trouble for Democrats. Voters disgruntled with the controversial policies of the Bush administration are susceptible to the rhetoric that casts McCain as a renegade Republican. Even though Obama successfully deflected Hillary's "experience" argument, polls continue to indicate that voters view the young senator as untested and, most dangerously, softer than McCain on issues pertaining to national security.
It's a cynical point, but the fact that McCain is such an admirable man does not help Obama's case either. There's ample evidence -- statistical and anecdotal -- suggesting that voters favored Bush in 2000 and 2004 because he's a likeable guy. It's been repeated ad nausum, but Bush was the sort of guy you could have beer with, while John Kerry was the kind of guy you sort of want to slap. We've already learned what happens when you vote for a President based on whether or not you'd like to consume alcohol with him.
Similarly, ff you're considering voting for John McCain, at least familiarize yourself with his politics. He is undoubtedly a good man. But he's neither a maverick nor a closet liberal. The important to question to ask, then, is not whether or not John McCain is admirable enough to deserve the Presidency -- his character is not in question. The right question to ask is whether or not you want another four years of the Bush doctrine.