Stephen Hayes describes the scene at a recent John McCain campaign rally where, in “the space of about ten minutes” McCain “seemed to be saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’” to the importance of Barack Obama problematic cast of associations. Hayes observes:
Such contradictions have become a defining characteristic of the McCain campaign over the last month as his strategists try to find something–anything–that will stop his slide in the polls. He suspended his campaign and threatened to skip the first presidential debate unless there was agreement on a bailout plan. There was no agreement, and he debated anyway. He said big government caused the current financial mess and then called for more of it. He called for a federal spending freeze and then proposed having the Treasury buy individual home mortgages at a potential cost of $300 billion.
“Incoherent” is what you hear from Republicans frustrated with the McCain camp. Democrats call it “erratic,” implying mental instability. Whatever you call it there seems to be both a personal and an intellectual element to the confusion, neither of which should come as any surprise to those who have watched McCain for decades.
On the personal side, McCain has been a reluctant partisan. He has always been more interested in poking his own side in the eye, rather than going after the opposition. Sometimes his own side deserved it, but he is now in a great and important contest for the presidency and at stake are principles and issues he holds dear. His inability to go full-throttle and attack the legitimate failings and deeply troubling associations of his opponent is baffling and ultimately debilitating. Have too many years in the Senate imposed a collegiality from which he cannot depart? It doesn’t seem to bother Joe Biden. Whatever the cause, it has now made his own task even more arduous.
On the intellectual front, again, this is nothing new. McCain has never been a beacon of intellectual consistency. He has always been a hodgepodge of Barry Goldwater/small government restraint and pro-regulatory fervor. Especially in the realm of economics, his career has been characterized by twists and turns: against tax cuts and for them, for regulation and against it. His greatest legislative accomplishment is his least conservative: McCain-Feingold. If campaigns reveal at some point the true candidate, this one has certainly pulled back the curtain on a man with no governing economic philosophy.
That might be fine in ordinary times. But in a large crisis the country needs a bold vision and some direction. At times voters must feel like they are on a scavenger hunt searching for the bits and pieces of his economic plan — flitting there, and darting here. It is exhausting and ultimately fruitless. You wind up with a basket of discrete bits of junk.
This election was always going to be difficult. McCain has made it an ordeal.