Politics & Policy

Growing Up McCain

John McCain and Jim Jeffords both seem to believe that it's just plain old not fair when they don't get their way.

“It is well past time for the Republican party to grow up,” Sen. McCain declared in a statement yesterday. The “maverick” senator believes it’s “immature” for a political party to fret overly about the fact it lost control of the Senate. Some might wonder what a political party is supposed to fret about if not the loss of the U.S. Senate — perhaps missing the season finale of Dawson’s Creek?

I find McCain’s position fascinating. Like Sen. Jeffords, McCain also believes that the fault lies with the GOP. But unlike Jeffords, who lamely blames the Republican party’s drift rightward (see my latest syndicated column), McCain blames anonymous “short-sighted party operatives” residing on “comfortable perches in K Street offices” who foolishly sought to “enforce party loyalty” on Jeffords.

It’s an interesting contrast. If McCain is right, then Jeffords didn’t leave the GOP because his moderate principles forced him to. Rather, he left because those nasty GOPers were mean to him. In other words, Jeffords’s delicate constitution couldn’t take the wedgies or the teasing from Republican jocks.

Obviously, as the media’s most beloved “maverick,” McCain is in an odd position in the wake of Jeffords’s departure. For reasons that must show up in his private polling, McCain wants to stay a Republican, no doubt in part out of loyalty and principle, but also because his very charisma comes from bucking his own party. If he leaves the party, he can’t buck it anymore. So, in terms of public relations, the message that Jeffords is quitting the GOP because there’s no room for an independent-minded moderate politician isn’t helpful for McCain at all.

Complicating things further, McCain can’t be in the position of actually defending the GOP during such a media firestorm; that would run entirely counter to his branding. So he needs a more conventional explanation for Jeffords’s departure — let’s call them immature party operatives. And so, Jeffords is a victim of the same “entrenched interests” that McCain claims to be a paladin of virtue for opposing. Under this scenario, McCain is the better man because he’s willing to face down those mean jocks rather than simply switch schools.

But that’s actually not what I find most interesting. Apparently the irony of the Arizona senator asking the Republican party to “grow up” seems to have been lost on most commentators, perhaps even McCain. You see, another famous Arizona senator — McCain’s hero in fact — also once bravely asked members of the party to grow up.

In 1960, Richard Nixon struck a deal with Nelson Rockefeller, which became known to some as the “Fifth Avenue Compact,” (because it was agreed to at a meeting on Fifth Avenue in New York City). But to others it was known as the “Republican Munich” or “Munich on the Hudson,” because Nixon capitulated to Rockefeller, agreeing to let the liberal wing of the party write key portions of the platform and to veto any conservative running mates.

In 1960, the conservative movement was ill at ease in the Republican party and Nixon’s sell-out was taken by many Goldwater supporters to be a clear indication that they were unwelcome. Barry Goldwater, the party’s most popular and successful fundraiser, delivered a stirring speech to his supporters. “Let’s grow up conservatives,” declared the man John McCain replaced in the Senate decades later. “If we want to take this party back, and I think we can some day, let’s get to work.”

He went on: “We are conservatives. This great Republican party is our historic house. This is our home … I am going to devote all my time from now until November to electing Republicans from the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ticket, and I will call on my fellow conservatives to do the same.”

And that is precisely what Goldwater did. Alas, when it was his turn in 1964 (defeating the “anybody-but-Goldwater” forces led by Rockefeller at the GOP convention), the liberal Republicans were nowhere to be found, except, that is, stuffing envelopes over at LBJ headquarters.

Admittedly, one could read McCain’s plea for the Republican party to “grow up” two ways. If you are a McCain fan, you’d say he’s embodying the true Goldwater spirit by imploring his party to take the long view and to tolerate dissenters.

But there’s another way of looking at it. Consider when McCain says, “Perhaps those self-appointed enforcers of party loyalty will learn to … recognize that we are a party large enough to accommodate something short of strict unanimity on the issues of the day.” Okay, fine. But why can’t Jeffords and McCain understand that too? Why is it intolerable when the conservatives — after decades of toil for the party — try to enact their agenda? When one man follows his heart, it’s “principled,” but when dozens or hundreds or thousands of others follow theirs, and they happen to agree, it’s somehow morally corrupt?

Well, where is the real corruption? Six months after being elected as a Republican, James Jeffords decided to stick it to his lifelong friends and colleagues because, according to him, he is a “moderate” and George Bush isn’t. Well, Jeffords knew both of these things when he accepted the party’s help and money in order to get reelected. And, George Bush actually has been more liberal as a president than he was as a candidate. But because he cannot have his way, Jeffords is taking the ball and saying to his fellow Republicans: “If I can’t play, no one can.”

The same holds for McCain. Why is it that McCain feels compelled to accuse the entire Republican party of corruption and pandering to nefarious “K Street” constituencies simply because conservatives are voting their conscience against his increasingly liberal and self-serving proposals? According to McCain and the media, it’s “immature” when conservatives don’t bend to liberals, but it’s “principled” when liberals refuse to compromise with conservatives.

Immaturity, to me, is the inability to realize that the world doesn’t cater to your every whim. John McCain and Jim Jeffords both seem to believe that it’s corrupt, immature, cynical, partisan, mean, or just plain old not fair when they don’t get their way. It seems to me that if anyone has some growing up to do it’s them.


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