Democracy denied: David Broder, John McCain, and the delusional politics of difference-splitting centrism
It takes a certain kind of masochism to get through the smug, centrism-über-alles drivel David Broder churns out at the WaPo column after unbearable column, and it takes that masochism to the nth degree actually to like it.
And yet sometimes, you just can't look away, which is what happened to me when I read the typically Broderish headline to his latest, published today, "John McCain, your country is calling."
Is it? Someone tell the country. It might not be amused.
Is it? Someone tell the country. It might not be amused.
In this column, as so often previously, in print and on TV, Broder celebrates what he sees as McCain's admirable above-the-frayness, his unique statesmanship at a time and in a place where, apparently, such statesmanship is sorely lacking. In other words, he props up the McCain-as-maverick myth that McCain himself cultivated so carefully, a myth has occasionally matched reality, as when McCain has broken the orthodox Republican line to work with Democrats (as on campaign finance reform, way back when) or to challenge Republican orthodoxy itself (as when he ran against Dubya in '00, doing remarkably well until the establishment crushed him, he lost, pouted for a couple of years, flirting with the Democrats, and then came running home to mama, embracing Dubya in '04 and never really looking back).
"I did not begrudge him the $20 million he spent to win Tuesday's primary, or whatever amount it was," Broder writes. "Nor was I bothered by the doctrinal compromises the senator made to convince Arizona voters that he was, in fact, a conservative." No, Dean Broder? Not bothered at all that this one-time quasi-independent mavericky pseudo-statesman and ardent and bipartisan proponent of removing the cancer of money from politics, scared of losing to the red-meat conservative J.D. Hayworth, basically blew the lid off the bank and ran as far to the right as he could, joining the ideological fringe that is now the mainstream of the Republican Party, as when he turned his back on immigration reform and a sensible approach to the issue of undocumented immigration by pandering to the nativist, racist GOP base in a state, Arizona, that has passed draconian anti-immigrant legislation? Really? McCain didn't "respond forcefully" to Hayworth's challenge, he just signed on to the current far-right Republican line. (Back in Spring '08, by the way, in a column slamming Hillary and Obama and calling their primary contest "The Democrats' Worst Nightmare," Broder praised McCain as "the rare exception who is not assumed to be willing to sacrifice personal credibility to prevail in any contest." He was wrong then and he's even more wrong now.)
McCain was never really the maverick he claimed to be and that the establishment media, of which Broder is a beacon, reported ad nauseam that he was. He was always a solid conservative and loyal Republican, save for that brief post-2000 flirtation, feelings hurt after the Bushies played dirty and smeared him without mercy, with the Democrats. Sure, he could have run with Kerry in '04, and perhaps he should have, but, with an eye on '08, he didn't, remaining comfortably ensconced where politically he had always been. And, sure, the right has long looked upon him with suspicion, neocon crushes excepted, and there wasn't much enthusiasm for him in '08 until he picked Palin, to his eternal discredit (and let us not forget that Broder has a mad crush on Palin), but that doesn't mean he's the sort of leader America needs or even much of a leader at all.
"The last thing the Senate needs is a loudmouth ex-radio talk show host like Hayworth. What it does need badly is adult leadership, and it's now incumbent on McCain to demonstrate that he is prepared to fulfill this role for both his party and his country." I agree with Broder that the Senate doesn't need Hayworth, who is, admittedly, far worse than McCain has ever been, but McCain has shown no willingness to be a leader with Obama in the White House, despite initial post-election suggestions that he might just fill that role.
"That reputation [for independence] is his ticket to influence, and a precious gift he can bestow on others, Republican or Democrat, who are willing to join him as a dysfunctional Senate prepares to struggle with a challenging agenda both domestic and foreign." Yes, but he has effectively destroyed that reputation with a sordid, fear-based campaign just to win the Republican nomination in Arizona, and it just doesn't seem that much influence remains. Sure, Democrats would love his vote, and it would be great if he could pull over the likes of Lindsey Graham, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins, three Senate Republicans who aren't quite as extreme as the rest, to vote with Obama on key issues, but he's had that opportunity already and he didn't take it. Where was he on health-care reform? Or climate change? Or immigration? Just because he's beaten Hayworth and will likely win re-election in November, does that now free him, as Broder suggests, to return to what he supposedly once was? Even if he really was once that, and even if he had the desire to lead, he'd likely be an ineffectual leader without many, if any, followers. He may once have commanded influence, and millions may have voted for him, but you're living in a past that never was if you think the future is McCain's to rule.
Broder, as usual, is wallowing in delusion, promoting a Beltway worldview of triumphant centrism that hardly resonates anywhere in America, however much Americans themselves may express frustration with the way Washington works. "One of the conspicuous failings in the past few years has been the absence of a second party making principled decisions on when to support and when to oppose the president. McCain has the best opportunity -- and the best credentials -- to restore this." No, what has happened is that one half of America's two-party system is descending ever further into madness. Even Capitol Hill Republicans, a bit more sane than the conservative base, have chosen the path of all-out opposition and obstructionism to anything and everything Democrats, with control of the White House and solid majorities in both houses of Congress, want to do. Against this, perhaps the dominant political development of our time, McCain would hve no chance of success even if he wanted to break free.
One big problem, though, is that Broder is not alone. He is not so much an independent thinker as the voice of a specifically inside-the-Beltway approach to politics. Unlike, say, the various pro-Republican mouthpieces at Fox News or The Wall Street Journal, Broder doesn't really stand for anything concrete, nor does he have a distinct policy agenda. What he and many of his Beltway brethren promote instead is the politics of difference-splitting. This is what their centrism is all about. In this case, one assumes, Obama would lead the left, McCain would lead the right, and the synthesis of this friendly thesis-antithesis would be the desired outcome, one that fed up Americans would celebrate. Of course, this too is utterly delusional. Washington doesn't work that way, or at least not anymore, and, in a world in which Republicans are trying to block everything they can and in which you need a supermajority in the Senate to get anything done, any such constructive "mutual respect" between Obama and McCain, assuming McCain is interested in working constructively with Democrats (we know Obama is more than willing to work constructively with Republicans, as he keeps showing even as he snubs his own liberal-progressive base), would likely go nowhere.
And, too, what of this very dynamic? Is the center between Obama and McCain really what Americans want and what would be best for the country? Given how far conservatives have successfully moved the American political spectrum to the right over the past few decades, this "center," as the Broder-oriented media see it, is already pretty far to the right. It's more of a center-right that leans Republican and tilts further to the right with additional conservative manipulation of the establishment media. Would the Broder approach have brought us health-care reform? Surely not, because McCain, along with Graham, Snowe, and Collins, were all against it, towing the GOP party line. Let us not forget, though Broder seems not to care, that Obama won the White House decisively against McCain and that Democrats have relatively enormous majorities in both the Senate and the House. Isn't that the true reflection, or as true as can be in a democracy governed by money, media, and corporate special interests, of the popular will, and shouldn't Democrats be able to govern effectively without having to secure 60 votes in the Senate? Why should they have to pander to McCain, why should they even need McCain, as Broder suggests, given the overwhelming electoral results of '06 and '08?
But Broder apparently cares not for the popular will, nor for majoritarian rule. What drives him is that smug center-right centrism that allows him to feel superior and above it all while feeding, whether he intends to or not, the conservative narratives that allow what has become a far-right party to block effective governance and the sort of meaningful leadership and change America needs. Perhaps it's wrong to expect more from the Beltway media establishment -- it certainly is from Broder himself -- but American democracy is undeniably being denied by this appallingly misguided approach to politics.