Maverick, the Misnomer
When Obama’s VP selection leaked to the mainstream media on early Saturday morning (soon to be followed by the campaign’s official, more provocatively timed text-message announcement) liberal pundits raised 3 AM toasts to the decision, hailing Biden for bringing to the ticket the kind of serious foreign policy credentials that had led many to consider Obama a political liability. Foreign policy was on everybody’s mind, and in a Wall Street Journal article published four days before the selection, Christopher Cooper accurately prophesied Obama’s choice, taking his cue from a statement Biden himself made last summer while vying for the presidential nomination: “Any Democrat who thinks this election is going to be about domestic policy is making a big mistake.”
With Russia on the rise and the US neck-deep in a series of endless and exhausting wars, there is little disagreement that this election must be one that prioritizes US foreign policy; something Obama clearly understands. But although Biden carries the clout of 36 years of senate experience and a chairman’s seat on the Foreign Relations Committee, as Ariana Huffington has pointed out, not all foreign policy experience is created equal, and the mere fact of experience is not enough to waterproof the Democratic campaign. While picking Biden has effectively demonstrated that the Democrats mean business, his selection was not an obvious one, and as a result, the Obama campaign is now faced with the new (and somewhat ironic) problem of rationalizing the different positions taken over a lifetime spent in politics.
In a recent article for the Washington Post, staff writer Jonathan Weisman retraced Biden’s conflicted attitude towards the decision to invade Iraq — a campaign he first supported as a means of reintroducing UN weapons inspectors, and then one he later denounced — as reflective of how Biden will not fit easily into Obama’s political narrative. According to Weisman:
The war issue points up both the advantage and the problem of having a foreign policy veteran on the ticket. Biden’s lengthy record does not lend itself to the easy dichotomy set up in the campaign thus far, between the man who cheered on the war long before it started and the candidate who opposed it from the beginning. Indeed, Biden’s relationship with McCain is far more complicated than that of political adversaries.
McCain aides said Sunday they intend to use Obama’s running mate against him. They want to make the presidential contest a two-against-one fight, with Obama on one side and Biden and McCain together on the other, not just on Iraq but on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Biden voted for, and the 2005 Republican energy bill, which Biden and McCain voted against.
In searching for points of weakness, the Republicans have determined that the best way to attack Joe Biden is to play up his relationship with John McCain, and by extension, his inconstant relationship with Obama’s politics. Capitalizing on what Biden and McCain have in common, the plan is to turn Obama’s choice against him; to frame Biden as antithetical to Obama, and Obama himself as a newcomer to the old boys’ world of American foreign policy.
This is a clever tactic, but for John McCain, it’s also entering into thorny territory. While McCain may try to use Biden’s words against him and contort him against Obama, in doing so, he can only call attention to his own inconsistencies, and to his tendency towards the most unholy of all political sins — flip-flopping.
Writing in The Nation last June, Eric Alterman and George Zuckerman published “Loving John McCain”, a lengthy piece surveying McCain’s ongoing romance with the mainstream media. In the piece, Alterman and Zuckerman argue that McCain’s ability to seduce reporters has long overshadowed his contradictory and sometimes alarming policy stances (for example, his 1999 assertion that he would initiate a ‘rogue state rollback’ if given the opportunity to revamp security policy). While the article tends towards the melodramatic at times, reading McCain’s ‘positions’ through cryptic or offhanded comments, Alterman and Zuckerman do point out several glaring inconsistencies in McCain’s politics, notably on the issues of immigration, tax-reform, and abortion; all of which found McCain towing the party line after initially opposing the Republican stance. Although Alterman and Zuckerman mount a strong case, highlighting the back and forth trajectory of McCain’s rhetoric and voting patterns, through focusing exclusively on McCain’s inconsistencies, they neglect the larger issue at stake — how McCain’s flip-flopping actually reflect the undeserved nature of his reputation as a maverick.
As political junkies have been pointing out for months, over the past several years, there hasn’t been a more steadfast supporter of the Bush administration than John McCain. According to MediaMatters,
McCain voted in support of the Bush administration’s position 95 percent of the time in 2007, making McCain the administration’s most reliable supporter in the Senate that year. Moreover, Congressional Quarterly also found that McCain has voted with Bush 90 percent of the time over the seven-and-a-half years of Bush’s presidency.
So while McCain may be a “flip-flopper,” (a term I sincerely hope falls out of use in the near future) there’s nothing inconsistent about his record. In fact, he’s almost refreshingly predictable–he speaks his mind, then votes the party line, an approach that so far has largely eluded criticism or repercussions. This, however, is both politically dangerous and ultimately untenable. Eventually, by attempting to exaggerate the distance between Biden and Obama through voting records, McCain will inevitably call attention to his Achilles heel — the striking resemblance between his own record and that of the current commander-in-chief’s. Ironically, through attacking Biden, McCain is playing into Democratic efforts to cast him as a continuation of Bush, eroding his chances of capturing undecided voters, and thankfully, of the presidency.