The Torture Debate as Kabuki Theater

A few weeks ago, a very good friend of mine, a progressive with a bit of an independent streak, asked what the story was with our criticism here of John McCain. Mind you, he harbored no illusions about McCain, having completely lost any faith in the guy when McCain endorsed the teaching of 'Intelligent Design' in public school science classes. But still, he was a bit taken aback by the seemingly sudden level of anger.

In response, I explained that, at least for myself, it was becoming incredibly frustrating that one of the most conservative members of the US Senate was able to position himself as a 'moderate' just because he didn't support torture. That it's accepted and promoted by the corporate media as conventional wisdom shows just how far right the center has shifted in the last twenty years.

Essentially, I told him that I thought the 'fight' between McCain and Bush wasn't real.  "It's all kabuki theater for 2008," is exactly what I wrote. My take on the situation was -- and still is -- that supporting torture doesn't hurt Bush's already low approval ratings as the people who are truly bothered by torture abandoned Bush a long time ago. However, loudly speaking out publicly against torture helps John McCain. It sets him up as independent from the President and makes him look like a humanitarian next to Republicans like Rumsfeld. The whole 'fight' on torture has more or less been stage managed.

According to Andrew Sullivan's reporting, it sounds like there's some confirmation that I was right all along.

THE ABOLITION OF TORTURE: I'm told a White House statement is imminent on the McCain Amendent. I'm told the White House has embraced the amendment, with no changes. If true, this is a huge step forward for the president, the war and American honor. It also has, I think, implications for McCain's possible succession to Bush as president.

How can Sullivan be so naive? I don't know. I'm guessing that it's a case of willful ignorance. But I expect this will become the conventional wisdom on how the 'torture debate' played out -- McCain stood firm in the face of opposition from Bush, but eventually got him to come around on torture. Wow, McCain's a Great American and Bush is reasonable, after all.

Like I've said all along, this whole thing was stage managed. The only good thing to come out of it -- and it's no small thing, to be sure -- is a ban on torture. We'll see if the ban is just window dressing or if it actually changes bad policy. But make no mistake. This isn't being done because it's the right thing to do. It's being done because it makes the most political sense for the Republican Party at the moment.

McCain and the Fearful Democratic Base

Lots of interesting stuff to chew on in this new Zogby news release, but I'll focus on what is fast becoming my pet peeve.  

The one Republican with real appeal across the political spectrum is Arizona Sen. John McCain. If he campaigns for a candidate, 55% of Republicans, 53% of Democrats, and 58% of independents would be more likely to support that candidate.


Democrats want their leaders to make modest compromises on their principles in order to win over voters from the middle of the political spectrum, while most Republicans want their leaders to stand firm on issues, even if it means losing moderate support, the poll shows. While 61% of Democrats agreed it was better to compromise to win broader support, just 44% of Republicans agreed. Independents, by a 58% majority, agreed that softening some ideological stances to attract moderates was the best strategy.

The survey showed that 93% of Independents, 63% of Republicans, and 79% of Democrats wanted candidates who were independent of party leaders and were willing to compromise to get things done.

There's more...

More McCain Reality

Here's another one for all of the Democratic McCain lovers. To be blunt, if you think John McCain is some sort of independent maverick who would be much better for America than George W. Bush, you're sorely misinformed. Writing in the supposedly liberal New Republic, Byron York of the certainly conservative National Review details McCain's efforts to ingratiate himself with the Bush/Rove team over the last few years, especially during the 2004 election. (The article is unfortunately subscription only.)

McCain campaigned like a workhorse for Bush in 2004, making more appearances for (and with) the president than he made for himself in his own reelection campaign. "I spent a grand total of three days in Arizona between the first of September and November," McCain tells me. "I thought it was a lot more important for him to be reelected than for me to be reelected." (That kind of it's-not-about-me humility is easier when you win, as McCain did in Arizona, with 77 percent of the vote.) McCain points out that he also campaigned for Bush in 2000 but got little credit for it, because "people wouldn't accept the fact that I had gotten over any real or imagined problems with the South Carolina primary."

But, in 2004, Republicans took notice. "People who were for George Bush in the Bush-McCain fight appreciated McCain standing up for the president," says Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "We knew he didn't have to do it, and that will be a tremendous asset for McCain in South Carolina." Dawson makes it clear that he hasn't chosen sides and that other candidates--Senators George Allen and Bill Frist, in particular--have accumulated some significant political IOUs in South Carolina. But McCain has, at the very least, earned the credibility to go back to the state, not as a loser, but as a major contender.

More than any other issue, the war is the reason why Republicans thank McCain for standing by Bush. As the level of public approval for the war goes down, and some Republicans worry that they have to accommodate Democratic calls for withdrawal, McCain's hawkishness looks better and better to those in the GOP--still a majority--who want to stay the course.

It's all right there. McCain is a Bush loyalist whose position on Iraq is 'stay the course.' Another issue York touches on in the article is one that I've heard Democrats give McCain credit for -- fiscal responsibility. To many, McCain's attacks on pork barrel spending are a nice change of pace from the profligate spending of the last few years of Republican leadership. But John McCain's definition of pork might be different from theirs. Sure, both sides may agree on the infamous Alaskan 'Bridge to Nowhere,' but I strongly doubt that many Democratic McCainiacs support the privatization of Social Security that McCain does.

Just two McCain quotes from the recent Ari Berman article in The Nation, "The Real McCain," says quite a bit about how far McCain is willing to go to solidify his support from the GOP extremes. He refers to campaigning for Bush in 2004 as "one of the proudest moments of my life." On Larry King's show on CNN, he said, "I admire the religious right for the dedication and zeal they put into the political process." That second quote might be defensible as relatively objective if it weren't coming from someone who is going to rely on "the dedication and zeal" of the extremists to win in 2008. Personally speaking, there's nothing I find admirable about the religious right's attacks on anyone who doesn't endorse their bigotry.

Returning to the New Republic article, York quotes McCain saying some surprisingly incendiary things about Democrats that he's already backpedalling from. This morning on 'Meet the Press,' McCain seemed to imply that the quotes were taken out of context. If that's true, they were taken out of context by someone who seems to support him. But I don't buy the out of context idea anyway, as these are pretty simple statements without much room for misinterpretation. Much more likely is the explanation that notoriously loose-lipped McCain said some things he now regrets.

With his war hero credibility, McCain is able to dismiss the calls of some of his fellow lawmakers--and fellow veterans--who want to get out of Iraq. John Kerry, McCain says, doesn't have "the strength to see it through." And John Murtha is "a lovable guy," but "he's never been a big thinker; he's an appropriator." Using language that Bush never could, McCain tells me that Murtha has become too emotional about the human cost of the war. "As we get older, we get more sentimental," McCain says. "And [Murtha] has been very, very affected by the funerals and the families. But you cannot let that affect the way you decide policy."

Shorter McCain: Kerry's a wimp and Murtha's a dumb, sappy geezer. A stubborn stay-the-courser like McCain apparently can't imagine that fellow veterans like Kerry and McCain might actually be basing their shifts on the reality on the ground in Iraq. I simply can't understand how some Democrats can continue to think John McCain cares one iota about their interests after knives in the back like these.

Slate on McCain: "The Bush Hugger"

John Dickerson at Slate has an interesting read on the ability of John McCain to snuggle up to President Bush seemingly without hurting his own political prospects. The piece is a bit fawning for my taste, but that's what we've come to express from the establishment media when it comes to coverage of McCain. Dickerson does do a decent job of giving the time line of McCain's emergence as one of Bush's closest allies.McCain's rapprochement with Bush got going in 2004, when the senator campaigned with Bush to help him win back moderate Republicans disenchanted over the war in Iraq. In a gesture seen by millions of viewers, he sat with Bush's family during one of the presidential debates. Afterward, McCain criticized John Kerry's views on national security, despite his friendship with the Democratic nominee. When rumors surfaced during the race that McCain might replace Dick Cheney, McCain campaigned with the vice president to stop the whispers. "He was there whenever we needed him," said a Bush staff member days before the election. Recently, when Cheney refuted charges that the president manipulated prewar intelligence, he quoted the senator: "As John McCain says, it is a lie to say that the president lied."

This support for Bush is yielding support for McCain in turn. Just three weeks ago, McCain's political action committee took in $1 million in just one week. Many of the professional Republicans who helped to kill his candidacy when he ran against Bush in 2000 now write him $5,000 checks—the full amount allowed by law.

This is essentially what it should come down to for anyone who buys into the myth that John McCain is a moderate. Forget Dickerson's baseless claims that McCain is "winking" as he embraces Bush. Just listen to what the Bush administration says about the so-called maverick. "He was there whenever we needed him." And yet somehow McCain is going to sell himself as an independent in 2008? Ridiculous.

The Real McCain

Bumped by Matt.

Hat tip to Nathan Newman at The House of Labor over at TPM Cafe for an article about McCain in the current issue of The Nation, The Real McCain.

The Nation has gotten on board the McCain Truthsquad bandwagon started by Matt Stoller in these diaries:

Two Faced McCain

Follow Up On McCain

The McCain Scam

This is the starting point for Ari Berman's article:

The détente with conservatives that began with his vigorous embrace of Bush during the 2004 campaign has become a full-on charm offensive.    .  .  .    His office holds regular meetings with conservative leaders in South Carolina, where his approval rating sits at 65 percent. He has met with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom he denounced as one of the religious right's "peddlers of intolerance" after the 2000 South Carolina primary.

After the antitax Club for Growth began running ads against McCain in New Hampshire, a state he won in 2000, he reversed positions and supported a procedural repeal of the estate tax. He has endorsed conservative Republican Ken Blackwell for Ohio governor.

At the suggestion of conservative activist and longtime nemesis Grover Norquist, he campaigned for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's failed referendum initiatives in California, particularly the "paycheck protection" provision targeting unions' political activities. McCain's likely to be the most requested Republican campaigner in 2006 races. "He's the closest thing to a rock star in the Republican Party today," says Michigan Republican Party chair Saul Anuzis.

There's more...


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