Pander Bears (Updated)
Like many of his compatriots at The New York TImes, Nicholas Kristof seems determined to revamp RIchard Nixon's old line about Watergate ("Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal") and apply it to the presidential primaries: "Well, when the Republicans do it that means it is not pandering."
Kristof contorts himself like a Cirque de Soleil performer in today's column, which makes the now-absurd claim that John McCain is certainly no panderer! Well, he kind of panders. But he feels awful about it in the morning.
From the first paragraph, it's like slipping down a rabbit hole where it's still 2000:
Even for those of us who shudder at many of John McCain’s positions, there is something refreshing about a man who wins so many votes despite a major political shortcoming: he is abysmal at pandering.
He continues with a tortured, cliched metaphor:
It’s a pleasure to see candidates who don’t just throw red meat to the crowds but try to offer vegetarian options.
Speaking of torture, Kristof uses the front of the column to highlight McCain's opposition to waterboarding, and how poltically brave it was:
Consider torture. There was nary a vote in the Republican primary to be gained by opposing the waterboarding of swarthy Muslim men accused of terrorism. But Mr. McCain led the battle against Dick Cheney on torture, even though it cost him donations, votes and endorsements.
Even more than his time as a prisoner in Hanoi, that marked Mr. McCain’s most heroic moment. He risked his political career to protect Muslim terror suspects who constitute the most despised and voiceless people in America.
Kristof doesn't mention that this, too, might have been a political calculation to woo moderates (remember, it's only pandering when Hillary or Barack do it, and it's certainly not pandering when one panders to white moderates), instead cutting and pasting the legend that Bob Somerby rightly refers to as "St. McCain" into his work (it's Sunday, maybe Kristof wanted to sleep in).
Kristof goes on to map out McCain's brave breaking with GOP orthodoxy on immigration, ethanol subsidies, and the Christian right over the years. It's only at the end of the column that he admits how McCain, in this presidential campaign, has reversed himself on almost all those positions in order, to, well, um...pander.
So how does McCain avoid the tag of "hack" that we might immediately attach to such a craven sensibility? Kristof offers the laughable justification that McCain's pandering is fine, because-- ha!--he's bad at it!:
Granted, his pride in “straight talk” may arise partly because he is an execrable actor. When he does try double-talk, he looks so guilty and uncomfortable that he convinces nobody...
...It is true that Mr. McCain sometimes weaves and bobs. With the arrival of the primaries, he has moved to the right on social issues and pretended to be more conservative than he is. On Wednesday, for example, he retreated on his brave stand on torture by voting against a bill that would block the C.I.A. from using physical force in interrogations.
His most famous pander came in 2000, when, after earlier denouncing the Confederate flag as a “symbol of racism,” he embraced it as “a symbol of heritage.” To his credit, Mr. McCain later acknowledged, “I feared that if I answered honestly I could not win the South Carolina primary, so I chose to compromise my principles."
[Can anyone explain to me how this last response is any different, politically or ethically, from Bill Clinton's answer in 1992 about his draft status-- that he wanted to avoid service but also keep his political options open for the future? Wasn't this a comment that Clinton was attacked for by the GOP that now supports St. McCain?]
Just as he's running out of room, in his second-to-last paragraph, Kristof chokes out some of McCain's less savory moments:
I disagree with Mr. McCain on Iraq, taxes, abortion and almost every other major issue. He has a nasty temper, which isn’t ideal for the hand holding a nuclear trigger. For a man running partly on biography, he treated his first wife, Carol, poorly. And one of the meanest put-downs in modern political history was a savage joke that Mr. McCain publicly related about Chelsea Clinton when she was 18 years old; it was inexcusable.
But Kristof can't leave the Times' shibboleths for long, and he frames these admissions with this:
In short, Mr. McCain truly has principles that he bends or breaks out of desperation and with distaste. That’s preferable to politicians who are congenital invertebrates.
Presumably, Kristof will hand out the tricorders in November, so we can actually distiguish between these two kinds of creatures (I love the idea that it's OK because McCain panders "with distaste." Yes, I'm sure the people fighting in Iraq will really appreciate that distinction). For now, we can assume, according the world according to The New York Times, that the "congenital invertebrates" are the ones with the "D" by their names on the ballot. The whole column gives its headline ("The World's Worst Panderer") an ironic tinge I'm guessing the paper didn't intend.
UPDATE (2:17pm): Just went to Digby's site, and I see that tristero is even angrier about this than I am.