There was a moment on the campaign trail last fall when I was reminded, suddenly, why John McCain was once the political crush of my life.
The Senator Who Could Actually Be President was campaigning at a New Hampshire high school when a kid in the audience asked an impertinent question. McCain is awfully old, the kid said. Did he worry about dying in office, or getting Alzheimer's, "or some other disease that might affect your judgment?"
McCain answered the question with the ease of a guy who's been in the public eye for decades — with age comes experience, I'm a hard worker, I'll outwork my rivals — and he tacked on a coda. "Thanks for the question, you little jerk," he said, his eyes twinkling.
Can you imagine the straight-as-a-tie-pin Mitt Romney pulling off that one? But McCain can play the lovable rogue like nobody's business, and the audience roared.
Last week, Hillary Clinton had her own little quintessential moment. Her eyes actually got all moist when a sympathetic audience member asked how she managed to look so great and keep her composure in the face of such nasty attacks. Compared with the question McCain got stuck with, this was a total softball. And yet Clinton used the moment to feel sorry for herself.
All sensitive self-pity, she said it was hard, really hard. She did it only because "I've had so many opportunities from this country . . ." — soft sigh — "I just don't want see us fall backwards."
So, if we don't listen to Hillary, civilization collapses?
I watched that YouTube clip about a dozen times, and even though it exasperates me, I can see why it proved effective. Clinton is usually so shrill, and self-righteously partisan, that she comes off as a parody of herself, an American Spectator caricature (barely) come to life. Her little sigh of sadness was at least recognizably human, and the pundits who say it helped Clinton to victory in New Hampshire are probably right.
But still. Blech.
Rush Limbaugh has said that men won't vote for Hillary Clinton because she reminds them of their first wives, but I'm sure Clinton has already written off that type of male voter. The bigger problem may be that women my age aren't going to vote for Clinton because she reminds us of our mothers.
Older women might see Clinton sighing and getting misty and think about how she's under attack by a vicious press corps and her male competitors. We twenty- and thirtysomethings instead think about the quaver in our mothers' voices when we tell them we may not make it home for Christmas.
"Well, I understand," she'd say. "It's just that everybody else will be so disappointed, and" — soft sigh — "do you really want to let Grandpa down when he might not live to see another Christmas?"
So, if we don't listen to Mom, the family falls apart?
We're supposed to feel sorry for her, and we do, but we also feel resentment and annoyance and a fervent desire to deal with someone who doesn't play games.
John McCain, anyone?
Last week, I changed my voter registration so that I could vote for John McCain. When I moved to town, I didn't realize that you have to be a registered member of one party or another to vote in the primaries. As of last Monday, my days of Independence are officially over: I'm a Republican.
The decision was a homecoming. I'd been an enthusiastic conservative my entire life. (Undoubtedly, I'm the only columnist in this paper's history who once ran a chapter of the College Republicans.) Long before I ever considered living in his home state, I voted for McCain in the 2000 GOP primary.
But after eight years of Bush, I wasn't sure I was ready to stick with the whole Republican Party thing, much less support my former hero. Not to take my cues from a high school kid, but McCain seemed . . . old. And in the darkest days of the war, I have to admit to feeling sheer irritation every time I heard him defending our involvement. Why did he have to keep pushing for more troops? Never mind that I'd once backed the invasion; when times got hard, I wanted to forget the whole thing.
So this year, I mentally auditioned a half-dozen candidates: Bill Richardson? Barack Obama? Okay, then, how about Fred Thompson? Please, tell me Chuck Hagel is going to throw his hat in the ring! I was surprised as anyone to find myself right back where I started in 2000.
McCain isn't a popular guy in Arizona these days. He may have a good shot at the Republican nomination this fall, but he could actually have a hard time winning this state. And I don't mean just the primary, but the general election. He's angered all the lefties with his unflagging support for the war, and he's angered the increasingly shrill closed-borders faction of the GOP with his amnesty plan for illegal immigrants. He's not the dream candidate of any major constituency.
And that's exactly why he's my guy.
It was a mistake to invade Iraq. We know that now, even if we don't all want to admit it. The problem is that we did invade Iraq, and we can't undo that or pretend it never happened simply by pulling out. Remember Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn Rule": You break it, you buy it. We bought it, all right, and now that we've toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed chaos, we can't just leave. We owe it to the Iraqis to get the country stabilized and give democracy a chance.
It was horribly ironic when some candidates suggested earlier this year that we should get involved in Darfur, even while calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. We need to stop the genocide, the argument goes, conveniently ignoring the fact that our presence in Iraq may be the only thing that's stopping the Sunnis and Shiites from slaughtering each other, not to mention the poor Kurds. We'd be intervening in one awful civil war even while abandoning one we helped to ignite. That's ludicrous, but it's also good political cover for candidates who don't have the guts to keep fighting an unpopular war.
Excuses are everywhere. I keep hearing Hillary Clinton talk about how she was tricked into authorizing the war. And John Edwards basically admitted that he voted for the war because of peer pressure — his running mate made him do it. Neither excuse should give us much confidence that these two are ready to take on the world. If they can't see through a bumbler like George W. Bush, and can't take on a windsurfer like John Kerry, well, they hardly seem ready for Vladimir Putin.
And the GOP side is hardly better. When Mike Huckabee criticized President George W. Bush's handling of the war, Mitt Romney called on Huckabee to apologize. Just two weeks later, when Romney was falling behind in Iowa, he held a news conference to say almost exactly the same stuff he'd previously criticized Huckabee for saying.
Does he think we're idiots?
John McCain has been the exception to all this rank opportunism. He supported the war, and then, for months, he called for more troops. When Bush started talking about "the surge," the national media was dismissive and the rest of us were exhausted. McCain kept calling.
The crazy thing is this: He was right.
Today, Iraq has stabilized, to the point that polls show that we fickle Americans are back to worrying about healthcare and the economy instead of the war's toll. If the Iraqis can manage to build a real democracy, and a military-industrial complex of their own to replace all those overpriced contractors, history will show that John McCain was right about Iraq when everyone else ran for political cover. Maybe we didn't always stand with him, but Arizona ought to be proud just for electing him.
And as for immigration . . .
McCain was heckled at a campaign event in Michigan last weekend because he's not willing to throw every Mexican out of the country. And it's not just a few boorish Michiganders up in arms about his interest in "amnesty;" everybody's a demagogue on immigration these days. Listening to the Republicans try to outdo each other on the issue is downright nauseating — and, I think, ultimately ineffective.
Look what happened to Tom Tancredo, the Colorado congressman who staked his entire candidacy on stopping illegal immigration. He got so little support that he dropped out before Iowa.
Yet Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have both decided that the way to win is to ape Tancredo. Scholarships for illegals? Not on their watch, at least not anymore. Huckabee has turned his back on one of the better things he did as governor. As for Romney, well, he says he'll boot 'em all out of the country in 90 days and he sent Sheriff Joe Arpaio out to stump for him.
John McCain was right. We do need a path to citizenship for immigrants who've been here for years. If they haven't broken the law, other than the victimless "crime" of not having the right papers, and they've been here working, we ought to find a way to let them to stay.
Of course, you can't even say a thing like that in Arizona without getting jumped, and I can't wait for the incoherent voice mails I'm going to get, asking me, "What part of illegal don't you understand?" That's why it was so gutsy for McCain not only to say it but attempt to do something about it, at a time when he knew he was running for president.
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You simply can't point to anything Hillary Clinton has done in the past seven years that comes close to McCain's immigration bill in terms of political courage. And for all of Barack Obama's admirable talk about bridging the partisan divide, it's McCain who's actually done it: on immigration, on campaign finance, even the environment. Mitt Romney is wrong when he says McCain is Washington — if everybody in Washington were willing to cross party lines like McCain, things might actually get done.
Of course, there's a reason Romney and Huckabee are sucking up the base, and even though McCain won New Hampshire, his immigration plan could cost him the presidency. The talk-radio crowd has made it clear they'd rather sit this one out, or vote for some fringe third-party candidate, than vote for a guy who says "yes" to amnesty.
It means that much to them. But it also meant that much to McCain to do the right thing. That's impressive.
And for that, he's got my vote. I'll be proud to cast it.