Welp, Richard Cohen has done outdone hisself in today’s column. He acknowledges that both Obama and McCain are something of an ideological chameleon — that each has changed his positions on certain issues in order to suit his political ambitions.
But guess what? McCain’s flip-flops demonstrate that he has more character than Obama does! Why? Who the hell knows! Just try to follow the reasoning behind this:
In politics, we’re having a Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr kind of year. It was Karr, a French writer, who coined the phrase plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, which means, as Barack Obama has shown, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. N’est-ce pas?
Oui . And the same principle holds for John McCain. Like Obama, he was going to give us change, and in a sense, he has. He has abandoned his maverick persona of old and moved to assure the GOP that on most matters, he is devoutly orthodox. This is change, all right, but for most voters, who hanker for something other than what they’ve had for most of the last eight years, this is not much change at all.
So: We’ve established that McCain has significantly changed his position on a whole range of things. This seems to indicate to me that McCain has some character issues — that is, he’ll change his previously-stated ideological convictions in order to gain a political edge. In this case, he’s trying to shore up support from the right-wing crazies who kinda hate his guts.
Now, moving on:
We shall return to McCain in a moment. First, Obama. The Democratic nominee reversed himself on the public funding of presidential campaigns and decided that he would, after all, raise the money himself. The reason for this reversal is that Obama is going to raise much more money on his own than the $84 million the government is prepared to give him. This is the kind of math even I can understand, and I forgive Obama for valuing victory over consistency.
But what is far less forgivable is the socialist realism language he used to rationalize his decision. He couched his selfishness as the essence of civic duty. He explained that he had to adapt to an exigency that was there all along but that he had somehow not foreseen when he pledged to accept public financing: to respond to those slimy campaign committees of the type that Swift-boated poor John Kerry.
Do I personally buy Obama’s explanation for why he opted out of public campaign financing? Well, no. But I never really held him on that high of a pedestal to begin with. As I’ve explained before, politicians are a means to an end. They use us to gain power through votes, we then use them to achieve our desired public policy goals. I’m not expecting politicians to be overly ethical or to have deep-seated convictions, but rather to simply be malleable enough to support things that I think are important. Anyone who exalts a politician as a person of high character is bound to be disappointed.
Unless, of course, you’re Richard Cohen and you’re writing about John McCain:
In some recent magazine articles, I and certain of my colleagues have been accused of being soft on McCain, forgiving him his flips, his flops and his mostly conservative ideology. I do not plead guilty to this charge, because, over the years, the man’s imperfections have not escaped my keen eye. But, for the record, let’s recapitulate: McCain has either reversed himself or significantly amended his positions on immigration, tax cuts for the wealthy, campaign spending (as it applies to use of his wife’s corporate airplane) and, most recently, offshore drilling. In the more distant past, he has denounced then embraced certain ministers of medieval views and changed his mind about the Confederate flag, which flies by state sanction in South Carolina only, I suspect, to provide Republican candidates with a chance to choose tradition over common decency. There, I’ve said it all.
And here comes the big “but” that he’s been setting you up for the entire time:
But here is the difference between McCain and Obama — and Obama had better pay attention. McCain is a known commodity. It’s not just that he’s been around a long time and staked out positions antithetical to those of his Republican base. It’s also — and more important — that we know his bottom line. As his North Vietnamese captors found out, there is only so far he will go, and then his pride or his sense of honor takes over. This — not just his candor and nonstop verbosity on the Straight Talk Express — is what commends him to so many journalists.
Cohen acknowledges that McCain has indeed changed his position on several very important issues, including tax cuts, the environment and campaign finance. But because he was tortured by the VC, this demonstrates that “there is only so far he will go” in selling out his ideological convictions (never mind that he even flip-flopped on his previous stance against torture!). So while McCain might actually be a disastrous president in the mold of Bush, at least he won’t back down when Charlie busts into the Oval Office and demands he lick Hanoi’s blood-stained boots — he’ll tell ‘em to go to hell, he will! That’s rough-’n'-tumble Johnny Mac for ya! Sellin’ out to the oil companies is one thing, but at least McCain won’t let Charlie call the shots!
You really and truly cannot make this shit up, friends.
Obama might have a similar bottom line, core principles for which, in some sense, he is willing to die. If so, we don’t know what they are. Nothing so far in his life approaches McCain’s decision to refuse repatriation as a POW so as to deny his jailors a propaganda coup. In fact, there is scant evidence the Illinois senator takes positions that challenge his base or otherwise threaten him politically.
That’s why his reversal on campaign financing and his transparently false justification of it matter more than similar acts by McCain.
I’m just about to lose it.
Look, if you think that Obama did wrong by opting out of public campaign financing, then fine. If you think his explanation was completely ridiculous, then OK. But please. Please, please, please don’t tell me that what Obama did is completely inexcusable while “similar acts” by McCain are a-OK because you and your press corps buddies all have gigantic crushes on his manly characteristic. Spare me.
A presidential race is only incidentally about issues. It’s really about likability and character.
Well yes it is, especially since media wankers such as Richard Cohen devote all their precious column space to judging others’ character using anecdotal evidence and double standards.
Obama is, to paraphrase what he said about Hillary Clinton, more than “likable enough” — in fact, so much so that he is the most charismatic presidential candidate I’ve seen since Robert F. Kennedy. But the character question hangs — not because of any evidence to the contrary and not in any moral sense, either, but because he is still young and lacks the job references McCain picked up in a North Vietnamese prison. McCain has a bottom line. Obama just moved his.
That settles it, then: Obama needs to get tortured by the VC so that Richard Cohen can declare him worthy of the preznitcy.
GET OUTTA HERE, YOU MANIAC!!!
Update: See also.
Gavin adds: Shorter Richard Cohen:
- Apropos flip-flopping, the key difference between Obama and McCain is that McCain can get away with it. For instance, watch this.