Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix The Liberal Case for McCain

A vote for pro-life, anti-gay-marriage military hawk John McCain is a vote for progressive politics. No, really.

By Robert David Sullivan

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  Voting for John McCain in this year's presidential primaries should be a no-brainer for anyone to the left of . . . well, John McCain. His defeat in South Carolina returns him to long-shot status, but the McCain candidacy is the best way for liberals to make some noise in 2000, and the man himself is almost beside the point.

It is true, technically, that Al Gore says more liberal things, but who listens to him long enough to notice? If Gore wins in November, it will be because the economy is good, crime is down, and people still believe in water-based metaphors: don't rock the boat, don't switch horses in midstream, and don't throw out the baby with Bill Clinton's bath water. A Gore victory would reaffirm Clinton's strategy of declaring an end to "big government" and pushing the Democratic Party to the right. Liberals can try to pull the party back -- which, in keeping with our nautical theme, is like trying to drag a battleship with a shoelace -- or they can shove from the other side. The better McCain does in the late primaries, even if he falls short of the nomination, the further the political center will be from trickle-down economics and the religious right.

In South Carolina, Bush claimed that McCain won New Hampshire because "he came at me from the left." That's true, at least in the sense that McCain's margin of victory came from voters who called themselves moderate or liberal in exit polls. And those voters chose McCain despite a congressional voting record that has been consistently against abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, and minimum-wage increases. As Salon writer Joan Walsh has warned, "Democrats who vote for McCain must do so with the sober awareness that they're voting for a right-winger."

A right-winger, perhaps, but not a reliable one, which is why real conservatives have rallied to stomp out his campaign. Conservative Republicans want a president who will give them more leeway in cutting taxes, civil liberties, and environmental regulations. Horrified by McCain's maverick personality and indiscreet rhetoric (including his insistence that Bush's tax plan gives back too much to the rich), many of them prefer as their nominee a wounded Bush to a popular McCain. Last week, Pat Robertson said that if McCain becomes the GOP nominee, millions of anti-abortion and pro-prayer voters might walk away from the party (presumably toward Pat Buchanan rather than Al Gore). "I think we can win without him," an unruffled McCain said on CNN. This is the ultimate nightmare of the Christian Coalition: getting frozen out of a Republican administration by a guy who remembers his enemies. (In endorsing the senator last week, failed religious-right candidate Gary Bauer seemed to be positioning himself as the only holy roller with access to a McCain administration.)

It's McCain's pragmatism that especially bothers ideologues of all kinds. When Bush criticized several of McCain's votes -- in favor of a campaign-finance bill that included public funding for candidates, for instance -- McCain responded: "I'm not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I will make compromises; that's the essence of legislating."

Liberals often do hold out for the perfect, so I can understand the hesitation to vote for McCain. My JFK-worshipping grandparents would turn over in their graves if they knew I was joining the Republican Party for even two minutes. Twenty years ago, I was a volunteer on Ted Kennedy's presidential campaign, and there is something jarring about voting for a man whose votes usually cancel out Teddy's in the Senate. But my loyalty toward the perfect candidate in 1980 weakened Jimmy Carter and ultimately contributed to the election of Ronald Reagan. So this year I'm using my vote as a tactical weapon. The die is cast, and regardless of McCain's voting record, any vote for him in the primaries will be interpreted as a repudiation of the right-wing leadership in the GOP. That's a challenge I can't ignore, and there are not enough differences between Gore and Bill Bradley to distract me.

George W. Bush would call me a party-crasher (an "outside agitator," if this were the 1960s), but I'm not voting for McCain solely to cause trouble within the GOP. I could even vote for him in November, right after I mark my ballot for Senator Kennedy. This kind of talk alarms loyal Democrats, but I just can't work up any kind of a panic over a Gore defeat. We're going to get another Republican president sooner or later; that's the way things work in a democracy. But if Bush is the nominee, and he loses to Gore in November, the Republicans may conclude that Bush wasn't conservative enough. In 2004, they may nominate a pro-creationist, anti-abortion flat-taxer who owns a chain of gun shops and operates "ex-gay" ministries on the side. If the economy finally takes a dip, the Republicans could even win with such a candidate. (After all, the last time either party won a fourth straight election was in 1944, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was getting us through a world war. Gore is no FDR, and I'm not going to spend the next four years praying for a sneak attack by Canada. It's not worth it to see Barbra Streisand sing at Gore's second inauguration.) A strong showing by McCain in this year's primaries may force the Republicans to look to the center in choosing future nominees.

But why not be happy about electing another loud and proud Democratic president -- even if it's only for four years? Well, think of all the progressive laws that Bill Clinton passed in eight years. Having trouble coming up with a list? Perhaps the best we can hope for is that Gore will be able to accomplish half as much.

I don't know what a President Gore would get through Congress in terms of health care or education. I am confident that he would step up the war on drugs, widen the use of the death penalty, and crack down on pornography. Staying to the right on such issues helped Clinton keep his approval ratings high, and Gore doesn't seem the type to fix what ain't broke. As for gay issues, I predict that Gore will support same-sex marriage as soon as Bob Jones University starts holding tea dances. He may be against the ban on openly gay Americans in the military, but he'd be no more successful than Clinton was in trying to lift it. As president, McCain might never drop his opposition to gays in the military, but if he were ever to propose a change from "don't ask, don't tell" to "don't care," it would sail through Congress. The ban isn't going to be lifted until a big-name conservative with a war record says to do it.

Gore would invite all the liberal acronyms (NOW, NARAL, NAACP, HRC) to the White House for lunch, but that's not going to get their agendas through Congress. The GOP has at least a 50 percent chance of keeping control of the House of Representatives this fall, and the odds are even better in the Senate. Moreover, almost every modern president has benefited politically from dealing with a hostile Congress (Newt Gingrich gave Clinton a bigger rise than Monica Lewinsky ever did), so I wouldn't expect Gore to work very hard to get a Democratic majority on Capitol Hill. That means liberals would need the support of moderate Republicans -- along with a few of the more spineless conservatives -- to get anything passed. And those soft Republicans are more likely to crawl toward the middle if McCain exposes the weakness of the religious right by beating Bush in major states such as California, New York, and Ohio.

Right now, I'll do anything to signal my disgust with Bush, the candidate of good breeding and double standards. (Affirmative action stinks, but nepotism is the American way.) Of all the major candidates, Bush is the most cynical, trying to win the GOP nomination by promising the biggest tax cut (even if it wrecks the economy) and running the most deceptive commercials. So far, he's tried to avoid gay-baiting rhetoric, but unlike McCain, he refuses to meet with the Log Cabin Club -- obviously keeping his options open in case he needs to stir up the homophobic vote.

With more than $70 million, Bush is also the best-financed candidate in American history. Given the Bush family's talent at getting other people to do their mudslinging, George W. would also be a formidable candidate against Gore, no matter how weak Bush seems at the moment. (Right, President Dukakis?) If he makes it all the way to the White House with this strategy, rest assured the Democrats will try to find someone just like him for 2004. Right after Gore makes his concession speech, they'll begin searching for a good-looking opportunist with a familiar name and access to a lot of cash: think Bill Bradley with more hair and fewer convictions. They will also know enough to unite behind their Dream Candidate long before the first primary, so that the voters can't mess things up. There will also probably be an anti-establishment candidate, but it's going to be tough for him or her to raise money if McCain fizzles this year.

McCain is a gamble, I'll admit. His voting record concerns me, but any politician has to represent the views of his constituency on most issues, and Arizona is a damn conservative state. Plus, the past is not always prologue in politics: Reagan started out as a Democratic labor leader, then became a rabidly anti-communist Republican to win the presidency, then pursued arms control with the Soviet Union. As a senator, Lyndon Johnson was careful not to offend the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party, but he became the most unabashedly liberal president of the 20th century -- before turning into a right-wing hawk in Vietnam. And there's also Barry Goldwater, another Republican from Arizona. In the 1960s, he was "Mr. Conservative," tarred as a troglodyte for opposing Johnson's Great Society programs. By the 1980s, he still called himself a conservative but said that "good Americans" should kick religious-right leaders "right in the ass." McCain may not be a closet liberal, but he has displayed a startling open-mindedness in this year's presidential debates. He worried aloud about poor people not having access to computers, and he scandalized conservatives by pointing out that the Internet began as a government program. Earlier this year, he let it slip that he "would not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade." Since then, he has backed away from that statement and affirmed that he's pro-life -- but few people on either side of the issue think that's his final answer.

There's some truth to the notion that McCain is running on his personality, not his vague reformist views. Some liberals are echoing the Bush campaign in calling him a lightweight (where are his policy papers?) and a hypocrite (how can he be a reformer when he bums rides on corporate jets?). But he is refreshingly candid, and he'd be the wittiest president since Kennedy. (I admire anyone who can say that "one good thing about Alzheimer's disease is that you can hide your own Easter eggs" and still have a political career in these over-sensitive times.) I was encouraged to hear that McCain reads the works of Flannery O'Connor and other short-story writers on his campaign trips. We need an intelligent president, and better someone who can appreciate literature than a humorless policy wonk. I like that he claimed Nine Inch Nails as his favorite rock group, albeit facetiously, instead of bragging about his ignorance of popular culture (as Mondale and Dukakis used to do). And I do feel twinges of patriotism when he talks about reciting the pledge of allegiance while being held captive by the North Vietnamese. I only get the willies when I hear Bush say that accepting Jesus Christ -- while amassing a fortune in warm and dry Texas -- was the turning point in his life.

But it's going too far to say that McCain is a non-ideological candidate. Liberals used to claim that Reagan won elections because of his sunny disposition, not his conservative views. But after 20 years in which both political parties have moved steadily to the right, there's no doubt that American voters had a plan in mind when they voted in the Gipper. In fact, the sweeping conservative victories of 1980 and 1994 (when the Republicans won control of Congress) have never been balanced out by an unequivocal win by progressives. Again, I don't think a Gore victory this year would do the job. But a strong showing by McCain would lay the groundwork for a progressive mandate in the near future.

Perhaps more than he intends, McCain could change the dynamics of future presidential elections. He's already proving that an insurgent candidate can reach voters and raise quick money over the Internet (as Jesse Ventura did in Minnesota), which is a useful model for progressive candidates not likely to clean up at $1000-a-plate fundraisers. His campaign is reaching out to first-time voters, who presumably have been unimpressed by both the middle-of-the-road Clinton administration and the Gingrich-inspired Republican Congress. If this "McCain bloc" grows into the millions during the next few weeks, both major parties are likely to begin scrambling for these new voters, and that means paying less attention to the wealthy few who dominate low-turnout elections. This phenomenon started to develop when Ross Perot got 19 percent of the vote as an independent in 1992, but Perot was a shrill paranoiac who radiated contempt for the democratic process. McCain may be a conservative, but he doesn't represent a hatred of government. His voters are more likely to go the distance in supporting reformist candidates.

Most important, a strong showing by McCain in the Republican primaries would be a crippling blow against the intolerant right. Ever since Reagan joined forces with them, far-right religious leaders have bluffed Republican leaders. They made a big show out of reluctantly supporting George Bush the elder in 1988 and Bob Dole in 1996 over "true" conservatives (Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan, respectively), supposedly in the interests of party unity. This time, they ditched Dan Quayle and Gary Bauer to put their weight behind George W. If Bush is badly weakened in the primaries by someone running to his left, someone who is rapidly burning his bridges with the Christian Coalition, the religious right will be exposed as a paper tiger. If he proves that it's possible to go the distance in the Republican primaries without the backing of anti-abortion groups, there's sure to be an openly pro-choice candidate in the next real contest for the nomination. And if McCain actually wins the nomination, there's hope that the craziest conservatives will be so pissed that they'll run to the Reform Party -- which will only weaken their influence even more.

The odds are that Bush and the Republican establishment will prevail by the middle of March. But a strong showing by McCain on March 7 will taint Bush's nomination as the product of big money and dirty campaigning. This possibility obviously alarms Bush: a campaign spokesperson in South Carolina recently lamented to the New York Times, "Everything we have done to build up the Republican Party is being threatened this year by people who do not have the best interests of the party at heart." I plead guilty to that charge, but I'm not necessarily acting in the best interests of the Democratic Party either. If the Republicans broaden their base and abandon their intolerant attitudes, no one will be happier than this lifelong Democrat.

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