If John McCain wins the Republican nomination, he will have done so not by persuading the Republican Party but by overcoming it with the help of outsiders and by feverishly endorsing the accusations of its enemies. If he loses, he will have provided the Democrats with what they will hail as proof that the GOP is an exclusionary, intolerant, narrow-minded, ruthless machine that would eat its own children rather than reform. These are betrayals, plain and simple, and betrayals by any definition are acts that are hard to square with honor.
And yet he has asked to be judged by his honor, and his countrymen have responded not merely with respect but with love, love for an American pilot whose plane went down and who suffered long in captivity on our behalf and in our stead, who was defiant and principled even in the face of death, and who, far beyond that, refused his freedom on a single point of honor that no one living would have accused him of dishonoring had he not. What he did is, as it should be, part of American history. There are few better or more moving stories, anywhere, of courage, defiance, and discipline. He has won the hearts of the American people. How could he not have?
He Has Faltered
But God does not make perfect beings, and although and perhaps because Sen. McCain was once the font of enough honor and self-discipline for 100 ordinary men, he has faltered.
It is not honorable to trade upon one's honor, to offer it as a token, to mention it in every other breath. This is self-evident.
It is not honorable for him to treat his rivals and opponents as if they were his captors. Are they? Were they? Is the world divided so, into bands of angels following John McCain on his zigzag course as he decides what position to take on the spur of any moment, and demons mounting in their number as he condemns and disdains one group after another? The GOP, he says, "is intent on breaking me." This is true only because he is intent on breaking it, making the nomination struggle a bizarre combat between the would-be nominee and the party he seeks to represent. Of course, many people fervently agree that in a contest between Sen. McCain and the Republican Party itself, the choice is clearly Sen. McCain: They are called Democrats.
It is not honorable to be magnetized always by causes that put his own party at a mortal disadvantage. Though quite right that the admixture of money and politics makes for deep and fundamental corruption, his cure, regulating the flow of that money, is worse than the disease. The flow can be regulated, the argument goes, because money is not speech. Fine. Put the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, the NEA, the AFL-CIO, People for the American Way, Emily's List, and the Sierra Club on budgets of $2 million per annum, and let's see if money is or is not speech.
Nor is it honorable for Sen. McCain to turn upon his own party for the imperfections he alleges, and cry out that its challenges can be met not by adherence to its essential principles but by backing down. The Republicans whom he condemns remember with exquisite clarity the decades in which, for holding fast to antiquated principles, they were accused of being on the wrong side of history. They remember that for their lack of flexibility, and, sometimes, electability (is honor about being elected, or about being right?), and their refusal to abandon their belief in the sanctity of the individual and of human life, in the limitation of bureaucracy, in liberty, and in government by the consent of the governed, they were mocked and reviled, especially just before the clouds broke and the light showed that their stubbornness had put them, in fact, on the right side of history.
And they wonder how it is that a man who held steadfastly for so long against unbearable pressure is so eager now to throw over his party, its principles, and its partisans for the sin of unwillingness to recast themselves according to what he himself admits are his sometimes instantaneous and improvised notions of reform.
Were he coherent enough actually to be seeking reform, his actions would have a different coloration. But he seems to want not the reform of the Republican Party as much as its overthrow. We know this because you do not reform the Republican Party by importing Democrats to vote in its primaries. You do not reform the Republican Party by siding with the press against it enough times to win a Pulitzer Prize. You do not reform the Republican Party by packing it with independents and floaters who have no compunction about deciding the fate of an organization to which they profess no allegiance.
Sen. McCain depends for his margin of victory, when he achieves it, upon these floaters, a not-so-small and entirely fickle component of American politics. They are not exactly "the middle." They are those who don't know if they are Republicans or Democrats, or who are sometimes Republicans and sometimes Democrats, or who are repelled by both, but who, after their quests and affairs, return to vote in the political pastures they make a great show of leaving. Fresh from their support of Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, Oprah, Pat Buchanan, Donald Trump, Ralph Nader, and Leo the Lion, they are the people who are moved by dim and intermingling currents of charisma, resentment, and indignation, and the background music that swells in commercials to evoke the Kennedyesque.
Never satisfied, they do not understand that, in the nature of things, political parties are exasperating even to their adherents, that politics can be pure only in a dictatorship, and then only in the eye of the dictator. Otherwise, it is a series of compromises and accommodations for the sake of being able to marshal transcendent unity when it is needed in a crisis of survival. After adolescence one should learn that although no one is
entirely happy in his political home, things work out for the best if you dance with the girl you came with. Not everyone does learn this, sometimes not even senators.
That is why, like Inspector Clouseau, John McCain ran so hard through the door that George W. Bush opened to the middle that he has to look behind him to see Al Gore. Perhaps if he keeps on at his torrid pace he'll go around the world and eventually get back to being a Republican, but must half the people of the United States wait upon his bayonet charges into the distance?
Claims Upon Our Heart
His claim upon our hearts and our collective conscience is that of a young naval aviator whose character and exploits will live in American history forever. But this claim does not extend to his further judgments, his contemporaneous actions, or his ambitions. It is surprising and disappointing that he has failed to understand his duty to his party, which is a greater, more constant, and better thing than just John McCain, even if he does not
know it, because it takes its force and justification from the real needs and heartfelt aspirations of scores of millions of people.
For this failure, and thus for the greater good of the nation he still serves with inimitable but reckless courage, this week he must be gently voted down.