As the final presidential debate drew to a close last night, I was left thinking that John McCain made at least one bloc of voters happy. Unfortunately for him, that bloc included me and all the rest of the loud, liberal group I ended up watching the debate with. While Obama maintained his composure and upheld his reputation as eloquent and unflappable — much to the ire of his opponent — the most entertaining part of the evening was definitely McCain, who veered wildly between vitriolic, inaccurate attacks and futile attempts to present himself as victimized defender of the ‘little-guy.’ (The highlight of this was his incredible suggestion that Obama was somehow at fault for failing to denounce John Lewis, a Georgia Representative who recently claimed that xenophobia at McCain events paralleled the racism at George Wallace rallies in the ’60s. Obama had in fact denounced this statement, and when did it become acceptable to defend outbursts of racism at campaign rallies?). Invoking everything from Bill Ayers to Joe the Plumber‘s concerns about the Obama tax plan, McCain put commonsense political advice aside and decided to forge forward with his current campaign strategy of attacking erratically and on all possible fronts. In this sense, he’s not unlike one of those shrapnel missiles he’s so enamored with.
Of the three debates, I think it’s safe to say this one was by far the most enlightening. Both candidates were made to articulate specific positions on pressing questions (kudos to CBS’ Bob Schieffer for not pulling any punches) and McCain finally said to Obama’s face what his campaign ads had been saying for weeks behind his back. Unlike the previous debate, which was mainly a platform for talking points, Obama laid out his beliefs and outlined his plans for socially progressive policies. This included increased school funding, and a host of national programs that seemed to comprise a 21st century version of Great Society liberalism. At one point, in a new and unexpected stab at reframing himself as a small-government conservative, McCain criticized Obama’s spending proposals, comparing them to the current administration’s.
A quick caveat, by the way: while I agree with many of Obama’s policy proposals, I certainly don’t support all of them — his health care and economic plans are band-aids for deep and systemic wounds, and at times he seems to prefer hiding behind a mask of magnanimity rather than address real questions. But these problems aside, as last night’s debate reflected, the bottom line is this: John McCain, in spite of whatever admirable stances he may have taken during his previous political lives, possesses a worldview that is alarmingly antiquated and dangerous. As Nicolas Lemann pointed out in last week’s New Yorker, McCain sees the world in black and white. He eschews contemporary political realities — transnational forces, the necessity of diplomacy — and instead favors an old-school, militaristic vision of the world that hearkens back to his childhood in 11th century Sparta.
Here’s Lehmann on the atmosphere in McCain’s campaign headquarters:
The people around McCain put me in mind of one of those old war movies where a salty, can-do major struts into the mess hall and points: “You—soldier! I like the cut of your jib. How about coming along on a special operation? Not for the faint of heart.” And then he knows how to cadge some light artillery, a couple of jeeps, and some rations from the quartermaster (he’ll do the paperwork later).
Now, I am by no means radically liberal. I’d like to think I’m a moderate liberal in a radicalized political climate — why else would people react to gay marriage or abortion like they would usher in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? — but moderate or right-wing, John McCain is simply not a viable presidential choice. As far as I can tell, voting for him has nothing to do with traditional conceptions of conservatism, slightly more to do with current conceptions of neoconvervatism, and is on the whole, wildly irresponsible. Rather than negotiate the complexities of the world — and particularly the elements of it they may not like — Team McCalin is determined to react and refashion it in their own image, proving themselves not only out of touch, but also incapable of real political action. In one regard though, both McCain and Obama are right. A change is in order. It’s just a pity McCain can’t recognize that he’s standing in its way.