Friday, September 26, 2008

Stop the presses! McCain will debate!

Shocker of the day: John McCain will, in fact debate Barack Obama tonight at the University of Mississippi.

Whew! That was close.

Eugene Robinson has a great description of McCain's campaign:

Changing the subject, which the McCain people have raised to an art form
Ain't that the truth. What did McCain accomplish with this gimmick? "Suspend" his campaign to get some legislation passed? What would he do if it were a real crisis, like 9/11?

A few die-hard conservatives defended him, but most people saw it as what it was: a gimmick. David Brooks is still trying to defend McCain. It's a valiant effort. There is much to like about John McCain. But Brooks is missing McCain's tragic flaw.

John McCain sees politics from the perspective of his personal honor. He has the traditional conservative outlook; small government is good; taxes are bad. But his primary concern is to act honorably. His response to the Keating Five scandal is a classic example. The failure of the S&L's in 1980's came about because of deregulation. Charles Keating encouraged several senators to help him out, and did it with oodles of campaign cash. McCain was one of them; he was reprimanded by the Senate for his role.

What McCain learned from the episode is that campaign contributions are bad. His personal honor was tarnished; the solution is to fight for campaign finance reform, to erase the stain on his person.

But he didn't learn the policy lesson, that too much deregulation in the financial sector of the economy can have disastrous results. I'm still not sure he sees that.

His response to this crisis was classic: he will save the day, because he is an honorable man, and what is needed is honorable intentions. He will solve this crisis with his own upstanding behavior.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a politician obsessed with his own sense of honor. Politics would probably be better if more politicians had the same obsession. But there are two problem with John McCain's obsession with his own personal honor. First, it sometimes blinds him to policy questions. Second, he doesn't trust other people. This is why he is willing to take on his own party: he just doesn't trust many fellow Republicans to act honorably. This kind of peer pressure is usually a net positive in Congress. But this week, it has led him to try to pull off the ridiculous stunt of "suspending" his campaign. He just didn't trust the other people involved to resolve this crisis in an honorable way.

Brooks writes that, for a politician, John McCain is a humble man. What he means is that McCain is very open about his own failings. There's little doubt about that. But it's a corollary to McCain's theory about his own honor: a key part of acting honorably is acknowledging your own weaknesses, because that kind of honesty is more honorable than trying to deny them.

So John McCain is very aware of his own failings. Except when his honor is at stake.

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