How McCain Got Caught in His Own Vicious Cycle

In the final debate John McCain constantly strove to translate policy into a personal code of behavior.

Nobody should be confused that John McCain’s campaign is dizzying in its gyrations, seemingly without direction and sputtering. McCain’s basic problem is that he does not really have politics. He has a sense of honor and an instinct for revenge when he feels his honor has been besmirched. That is the heart of his “politics.” He has no feel for them. His career consists of episodes where he finds himself trapped in affairs of honor or dishonor, from Vietnam to the Keating Five, from his campaign against George W. Bush to the one against Barack Obama.

As the son and grandson of admirals and with a lineage tracing back to George Washington’s staff in the Revolutionary War his code is military. In that respect he is the opposite of George W. Bush, son and grandson of politicians, and Barack Obama, who has found his home and identity in politics despite his “post-political” rhetoric.

McCain truly hates only Republicans, from Bush to Tom DeLay.

McCain is the Republican Party nominee only because of the party’s disintegration, the shattering of the party’s center as Bush had constructed it, and the conservative inability to coalesce even as a faction amid the ruins. For the same reason, McCain’s difficulties—all of them—stem from the implosion of the Republican Party under Bush, t he strange death of Republican America.

McCain’s most virulent enemies have not been Democrats. Some of his best friends are Democrats—and not just Joe Lieberman. He is a maverick as a Republican in that he has few if any enemies on his left but only on his right. He truly hates only Republicans, from Bush to Tom DeLay. And the feeling is mutual. Since the dirty tricks campaign in the GOP South Carolina primary of 2000, he has sought vengeance against those who violated him—the gang of operatives who aided and abetted Bush’s campaign against him, many of them close to DeLay—including Jack Abramoff, whose crimes McCain through his chairmanship of the Indian Affairs Committee exposed.

McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate as an impulsive act to assert his own authority against Bush and Rove who were pushing Romney on him and in defiance of his staff’s insistence of the madness of his preference for Lieberman. The Bush White House intensely dislikes him today, more than a few months ago, regarding him as a hopeless politician. Despite his selection of Palin, the right remains wary of him. They back him out of the desire for power, not shared values or politics. Mistrust continues to plague McCain within the GOP.

McCain mixes extreme individualism into his anti-political core. A natural-born fighter pilot, a solo operator, he is highly temperamental, easily upset, often unmanageable, loves to gamble (including at the craps table), and willing to plunge into risk. He has never been anything else. He has always flown on a wing and a prayer. Unsurprisingly, he does not think logically in policy terms. His erratic and impulsive pattern is utterly predictable.

Hardly anybody within the Republican Party trusts him—not the White House, not Bush’s close allies, not business, not evangelicals, not conservatives generally. As a presidential candidate, whenever McCain’s alienation from his party is threatened, he desperately runs to embrace the conservative wing by doing something, almost anything to satisfy it. Many of McCain’s shifts have been necessary to allay the right’s long-held and well-founded suspicions of his betrayals. Every time McCain moves to his right, it is because he’s not trusted within his own party. Every time he swivels away from the right, the mistrust between McCain and Republicans signals a larger collapse of ideology.

On one level, the more McCain’s incoherence has been exposed, the more erratic and impulsive he has become. But, on another level, he’s predictable. McCain inevitably comes to regard the objects of his scorn as dishonorable. His contempt for Obama is rooted in his ingrained military sensibility. Obama is trying to become commander-in-chief without having earned his stripes. His campaign against Obama has turned into an effort to disqualify him as dishonorable. Caught in a vicious cycle, McCain returns to his “politics” of honor.