A few years ago, I wrote a long profile of John McCain for a now-defunct magazine called Arizona Monthly (so defunct that I can’t even find a copy of the article), and had cause to spend days on Nexis and in the Congressional Record going through his career as a politician. Pace my friends on the Right, but what came through most clearly was not his hunger to curry favor with non-conservatives but rather his hunger to stand in opposition to a prevailing authority.
For example: McCain may now trumpet his Reaganite credentials, but as a very junior Congressman from Arizona, he was surprisingly vocal in his libertarian criticisms of the Reagan administration’s spending (sound familiar?).
Later, as the most senior Vietnam vet in government, he chose to set himself against the powerful populist movement to locate living Americans missing in action in Vietnam — disgusted as he was, and properly so, by the Chichikovian hustlers who preyed on the emotions of the families of American soldiers listed as MIA by selling them bills of goods about invented eyewitness accounts of Americans still in custody in Southeast Asia.
He continued his oppositionism by deciding to take on industries with a mercantilist relationship to federal, state, and local governments that did not act in ways to benefit their consumers — Big Tobacco for one, and cable television for another. Even as he was doing this in the 1990s, he was also at the Clinton administration’s throat for behaving fecklessly on the key issues of military readiness and the situation in the former Yugoslavia. And, of course, we know about his oppositionism to the Bush administration in the areas of tax cuts (foolishly against) and the conduct of the struggle in Iraq (against in the most visionary way).
McCain begins to lose his footing when he isn’t squaring off. That is, in part, what accounts for the disastrous turn his campaign took in 2007; he was the frontrunner, the establishment choice, and he simply didn’t know what to do or how to manage it. Fortunately for McCain, he will be running throughout 2008 as an underdog. But he will also have to be a figure of unity, a leader on whom tens of millions of people can project hopes and wishes and expectations. That is what it means to be a national leader. It will be a terrific challenge for him. But who said running for president is easy?