Wednesday, March 29, 2006

In yesterday's Washington Post, E. J. Dionne wrote about John McCain's recent attempts to mend fences with the Republican right. What Dionne said sounds sensible -- but he's flat wrong about this:

...If McCain spends the next two years obviously positioning himself to win Republican primary votes, he will start to look like just another politician. Once lost, a maverick's image is hard to earn back.

Moreover, McCain is winning a hearing from previously reluctant Republicans as the one person who might save the party if Bush's popularity continues to sink. But if McCain gets too close to Bush in the next two years, he will no longer have his independence as a selling point. And if Bush should make a comeback, a lot of Republicans flirting with McCain now out of necessity will happily abandon him for someone more to their liking....

Er, no.

The press long ago got hold of (in the Daily Howler's phrase) "a story it likes" about McCain, the maverick story, the story that he's a pure, sainted, shoot-from-the-hip guy who's not afraid to go after even members of his own party. The public likes that story, too. So that's going to be the story no matter what McCain does, unless something extraordinary dislodges it.

That's how it works in American politics. Bill Clinton was a big liberal even after NAFTA and welfare reform and the Defense of Marriage Act. George W. Bush was seen as a moderate all through the 2000 campaign, even as he talked about Reaganite tax cuts and Social Security privatization, and even as he declared that his ideal judges were Scalia and Thomas and his favorite philosopher was Jesus.

Bush's reputation as a moderate -- the term of art was "compassionate conservative" -- survived the Ashcroft nomination and the first tax cut and the curtailment of stem-cell research; for the press and most Americans, Bush's conservatism became obvious only after 9/11, and only gradually even then.

(You can change your reputation without a world-historical cataclysm, but it's not easy. Jimmy Carter's did it, but only by devoting his entire post-presidential life to becoming a living saint. Then again, that's not even a huge leap from his image in the 70s.)

Does Dionne think McCain's going to stop seeming like a maverick because he's speaking at the graduation ceremony at Jerry Falwell's college? Nah. All McCain has to do that evening is go on Hardball and seem like his old self, and Chris Matthews's guy-crush will remain intact.

McCain could harm his reputation as a maverick, but he'd have to work really, really hard. The biggest obstacle to this is the fact that GOP rightists still hate McCain no matter how hard he tries to pander to them. He won't look like a sellout until he can find a buyer.

He'll never get to that point unless, perhaps, he masters some of the really obscure wingnut shibboleths. He'd have to go on Imus and declare that Jamie Gorelick caused 9/11 and should be shot for treason, or cancel an appearance on The Today Show because he refuses to be interviewed by "Katie Commie," or hold forth about the evils of Jimmy Carter.

He'd have to do that -- the wingnuts want respect. Only then would they truly embrace him (maybe), and only then (maybe) would the press begin describing him as anything other than a maverick.

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