There used to be a group of American politicians who had the funny habit of taking their most admirable quality and renouncing it. We called them Democrats. But in the last few weeks, Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney have threatened to seize this mantle and make it their own.
"I never considered myself a maverick," John McCain told Newsweek’s David Margolick in a story published Saturday. "I consider myself a person who serves the people of Arizona to the best of his abilities."
What Romney and McCain would tell America is, “Everything you’ve heard about me is wrong!”
McCain, of course, made nearly all of his pre-2008 reputation on the fact that he was a political maverick. The effect was so complete that a book critical of McCain (by blogger Matt Welch) was subtitled The Myth of a Maverick. What McCain is now saying is that he might consider that title as a campaign slogan.
Mitt Romney made a similarly dramatic disavowal of his former self two week ago. Romney, who passed ambitious health-care reform as governor of Massachusetts, decided that he was no longer in favor of ambitious health-care reform. In a post on National Review Online’s The Corner, Romney called Obama’s bill “twisted,” and said Obama’s actions were “unconscionable” and that Obama had “succumbed to the lowest denominator of incumbent power.” It was as if Romney had lit his résumé on fire, and had returned to Boston to deface his gubernatorial portrait.
Call it the self-attack ad. And if this ritual self-mutilation sounds familiar, it might be because it used to be a trademark of some prominent Democrats. In 2000, Al Gore decided that perhaps the most admirable part of his political profile—that he’d been the vice president of a popular administration—was his biggest weakness. He discouraged Bill Clinton from campaigning for him and downplayed Clinton’s record on issues like the economy. As The Washington’s Post John F. Harris reported, “He was often palpably uncomfortable when talking about Clinton, and his fumbling answers to the question of whether Clinton would campaign for him elevated this to a major subplot of the fall campaign.”
Similarly, John Kerry, who had made his political reputation by being a war hero who opposed the Vietnam War, who had opposed the George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War, embraced the second Gulf War. Campaigning in 2004, he delivered a series of unconvincing reasons for this stance, which made it seem like a vote of political expediency. But, he insisted, “There’s no inconsistency in me.” It was this pretzeled stance that led Kerry to make the campaign’s defining gaffe: saying of a war supplemental funding bill, “I did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
Democrats weren’t the only ones attacking themselves then, nor are Republicans now. (Witness Democrat Blanche Lincoln’s dueling health-care commercials in Arkansas.) But the notion that the 2008 Republican nominee and a guy that has an inside track on the 2012 nomination would need to run against their old political identities is revealing.
What happened? Well, for one thing, we know that primary campaigns force unorthodox politicians to become more orthodox. The presence of two tricky races—the GOP primary in Arizona for McCain; the 2012 presidential primary for Romney—has forced both men to hew even closer to the party line.
But there’s an interesting difference. Gore and Kerry were contorting themselves by rejecting liberal positions they felt might be too liberal for the general electorate. McCain and Romney are rejecting liberal positions they feel might be too liberal for Republicans. Democrats, you might say, worry they will be rejected by rest of America. Republicans worry they will be rejected by their closest friends.
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.