McCain the Maverick or McCain the Hypocrite. Whose in Charge?

“History is made at night. Character is what you are in the dark.” So says Lord John Whorfin in the 1984 movie Buckaroo Banzai. But he may as well have been talking about the presidential election in 2008 and specifically about Senator John McCain.

Senator McCain has proven the mettle of his character in the darkest of places, the Hanoi Hilton in the 1970s. He has repeatedly demonstrated that character in his political career standing up to the status quo, taking on tough issues and reaching across party lines. He has earned the right to call himself a maverick.

Yet something happens to Senator McCain when he runs for president. The principles and stright talk he claims to possess take on a situational, one might say hypocritical cast. As a Senator he opposed President George Bush’s tax cuts as inappropriate and political; he now supports them. As a Senator he introduced bi-partisan immigration reform; he now opposes his own legislation.

His performance as a candidate has been erratic, too. During the summer he attacked his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama, unceasingly and vigorously as too inexperienced to be president. Then he nominates someone, Governor Sarah Palin, with even less experience to be his own running mate. When asked about the economy during the first presidential debate, Senator McCain retreated to diatribes against earmarks as if cutting the one percent of the budget they account for would stop the current turmoil in the markets. Yet Alaska, of which his running mate is Governor, receives more earmarks on a per capita basis than any other state.

What all this means is that Senator McCain is capable of being a Maverick or a Hypocrite. And which shows up tends to depend on the play of shadow and light in his political world. 

The darkest moment of his 2000 campaign for the presidency was in South Carolina and he chose to take a position on the Confederate flag that. he later admitted, was a “sacrifice of principle for personal ambition.”

To describe the current status of the McCain campaign as dark is an understatement. He’s trailing in the polls (a fact that, as I’ve written before, should be discounted). He has given up on winning in Michigan, a state once considered core to his electoral college strategy. His frantic and frenetic response to the economic meltdown undermined his stature as a mature leader during crisis. Senator Obama’s debate performance underscored his readiness to be Commander-in-Chief. And Governor Palin’s inept and embarrassing performance in interviews with Katie Couric made clear her selection as the vice presidential nominee was all about putting politics before country. In fact, the only bright spot for Senator McCain in the past week was that Governor Palin exceeded expectations in her debate against Senator Joe Biden.

Senator McCain could have responded to this situation in a variety of ways. He could have re-launched the Straight Talk Express and done a tour of the country talking about the economy. He could have challenged Senator Obama to additional debates to focus exclusively on the economy — he could have even offered to pay for the air time if the networks wouldn’t cover the discussion for free. He could have convened a conference of his top financial advisors, instructed them to develop a regulatory restructuring plan and present it to him in three weeks. He could have, in short, demonstrated the character of a maverick who stands up to problems.

Or Senator McCain could demonstrate the character of a hypocritical politician who, bereft of ideas, slings mud. Guess who showed up?

The McCain campaign is proclaiming it’s intent to question Senator Obama’s character, honesty and integrity. Governor Palin is accusing Senator Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” based on a twisted interpretation of a New York Times article. Senator McCain, who claims to never have lied, has repeated charges against Senator Obama that have been demonstrated to be false.

Attacking the record — and yes, the associations — of your opponent can be done in an honest and appropriate way. It requires strict adherence to the facts and a tenor that treats the charges seriously. Then there’s the the desperation approach where the goal is quantity, not quality. There’s a line between running a tough campaign and mud slinging. Where you stand relative to that line says a lot about your character.

Intead of addressing the challenges facing America at home and abroad, Senator McCain has embraced the Swift Boat tactics he once condemned. Instead of a responsible discussion of Senator Obama’s background and alliances, he’s slinging as much mud as possible.

If character is what you are in the dark, then Senator McCain’s character, at this time during this campaign, is hypocritical. Maybe when he’s back in the Senate we’ll see the maverick we once admired.

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