The Problem with Defending McCain

Unless you’re a hack that is. But Reihan Salam is not a hack by any means, so this is the best he can muster:

I support John McCain, and I recognize that he’s facing a very tough political environment. That’s why he is often forced to embrace positions that are very much in tension with each other. My suspicion is that if McCain were running far ahead of the competition, if he faced a less polarized political environment, you’d see him embrace a different, more coherent set of policies.

But there’s a few problems with that. Firstly, and I think obviously, it seems safe to say that the electorate is much less polarized than it was in 2004, or even in 2000, if for no other reason than that there’s a relatively broad consensus, so far as American politics goes anyway, that the Bush Presidency was more bad than good and that we need to respond by giving Democrats a chance for a while. That’s how you get Democrats winning special elections in heavily Republican Congressional districts for example. Secondly, Reihan seems to, I think, have the ahead-behind dynamic backwards. When you’re a clear frontrunner most everything going for you, you tend to have an urge to play it safe. That’s where Obama’s recent position changes come from, as he’s gone from being the insurgent trying to unseat the Clintons in a primary to being the odds on favorite in a general election. Being a heavy underdog though, you don’t really have that much to lose. I fact, hasn’t that been McCain’s hallmark, and why we were reading analysis that McCain is better as the underdog when his primary campaign was faltering? I suppose it’s possible that a candidate could respond by saying anything, desperately trying to find something that works, but it doesn’t seem substantially more likely than responding by laying it out there.

Of course, the problem is that McCain doesn’t really care about anything but hardline, militarist rhetoric, escalating geopolitical tensions, and talking about “Islamic terrorists.” His contradictions on domestic policy don’t come from political positioning, they come from not knowing what his own positions are.