John McCain and the perils of independence
John McCain's shameful and hypocritical performance at the hearings on "don't ask, don't tell" has sent James Fallows into another round "Whatever happened to John McCain?" How could yesterday's enlightened maverick be today's retrograde crank?
The sad fall of McCain gets at a larger issue, I think: Washington's strange affection for "independence." As it happens, independence of the form McCain displayed is quite rare. In the introduction to their book "Ideology and Congress," political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal explain that their system for estimating polarization fails "in a few cases" of extreme erratic voting patterns. The example they give is McCain.
"John McCain (R-AZ) started as a conservative, became a moderate after losing the Republican nomination to George Bush in 2000, and recently reemerged as very conservative," they write. This is usually where one of the explanations for McCain simply stops: He's an opportunist who's swung left and right when swinging seemed beneficial to his career.
But Congress doesn't lack for opportunists. As Poole and Rosenthal say, however, McCain's record is extremely unusual. The question is why he's so different.
The answer, I think, is that the thing people call "independence" is not necessarily a sign of a free mind, which is how it's often presented, but merely one attached to different things. McCain's independence relies on a "friends with benefits" relationship to his policy positions. He's sponsored cap-and-trade bills and now vociferously opposes them. He fought the Bush tax cuts amid lower deficits and now supports their full extension amid yawning debt. He was open to repealing DADT and now opposes it. He worried about income inequality during the 2004 election and now hardly mentions it.
McCain's career makes more sense through the prism of electoral opportunities and personal resentments than policy commitments or philosophical beliefs. In this, you could say that he's missing some crucial protections from motivated skepticism. But perhaps it's better to observe that when you hear someone is independent, it's worth asking, "Of what?" McCain seems free from the substantive commitments that anchor other legislators, but that's just let him be captured by his circumstances and relationships.
Photo credit: Hyungwon Kang/Reuters.
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