I am not usually interested in talking about “current events” but the death of John McCain is worthy of consideration in terms of all the questions it poses for the long trajectory of politics in the US and elsewhere.
First, cards on the table: I was for many years a card-carrying member of the McCain fan club. I met the man twice, once when I was interning on the Hill in 2001 when he and Joe Leiberman were the Statler and Waldorf of American politics, and again three years later when he came to the Oxford Union; somewhere in the back of my desk drawer is a grainy first-generation camera phone video of the standing ovation he received from all as he left that hall. To my mind, in his 2000 incarnation he was perhaps the greatest President the US never had, combining nobility and grace with a far-reaching sense of mission and destiny for his country. On top of this, he was a patriot and in his own way, had a strong sense of America’s purpose in the world. His defeat at the hands of Karl Rove’s borderline racist campaign in the 2000 Republican primaries was a tragedy all round.
McCain sponsored the only substantial campaign finance reform bill of recent years, and was one of the few sources of bipartisanship in an era of increasing polarisation. He also attempted, being a Western conservative rather than a Southern one, to find a way to reform immigration in such a way that America could still be sensitively preserved before the difficulties set in. He failed, but not before dragging Bush along with him and not before cementing that alternative Republican approach towards success in states that were not whiter than white – including Arizona and Texas. In party terms it might be said that he was the future, once.
Yet by 2008, McCain was a sad shadow of his former self. For the previous few years he had begun to cravenly solicit the support of the GOP machinery by supporting an extension of the Bush tax cuts and in the end turning to Karl Rove, of all people, for advice in the Presidential campaign. For my own part, I struggled to support McCain during that election and only did so in the end as a counter to the vapidity that would prove to characterise Barack Obama; in fact my preferred candidate in early 2008 was Hillary Clinton. Where in 2000 I was so deeply upset at McCain’s failure, by 2008 I could only shrug as his team decided to invite Sarah Palin onto his ticket.
This stark decline was not just a measure of his political choices; it was indicative of the declining relevance of McCain and his whole faction, well-meaning but ultimately anachronistic as they were. For a start, his ideological hawkishness over Iraq showed an antiquated notion of how to manage international relations. Elsewhere, I have written about the idea that greatness can only be achieved through a judicious mixture of both nobility and ruthlessness, not through ideological optimism alone. For a country like the US, some countries may be won over, but others need to be kept down with all the skullduggery in one’s arsenal. McCain was blindly wedded only to the former; his worldview was effectively one of nobility alone – the idea that sheer “rightness” would be enough to win America’s conflicts.
McCain, even in 2000, embodied all too much that post-Cold War complacency which first failed to foresee the emerging threat of militant Islam and then also dealt with it so clumsily and inconclusively. Leaving aside Iraq, it is also difficult to imagine what McCain’s reaction to China would have been in recent decades. The likelihood is that in dealing with what has become the single largest threat to American hegemony, he would have undertaken the same combination of sabre-rattling and indecision which was to inform the Bush and Obama administrations. McCain would also have had nothing to say on China’s post-WTO gamesmanship, because trade, commerce and business were not his strength. He would have been just as distracted by pointless sideshows against Russia and just as obtuse, I am sad to say, about the key issues of wage growth and trade.
It is incredibly sad to think of how irrelevant many of the things we put McCain on a pedestal for ten years ago, are today. Yet he does bequeath some traits which remain important, of bipartisanship, integrity and patriotism which are so obviously lacking throughout the ranks of both political parties today. McCain would have taken us into perhaps ten wars and back; but he would always have done so on first principles. Nonetheless his passing closes the chapter on an era when America could still afford to think in clean cut terms about its role in the world; and highlights the fact that his naivety on occasionally doing the cynical thing, is also passed. For McCain, I believe the world was always the world of 2000. I adored the man, but it is time to move onto a new reality.