Joining in this debate on campaigning and honor with Ross and James a little late, I want to go back a few months to the time when Obama had just wrapped up the nomination to recall Obama’s numerous shifts and flips on various issues, including the violation of his campaign pledge to accept public financing. While McCain was not alone in ridiculing Obama on his changed public financing position, McCain did express his disappointment about Obama breaking his word. I suppose the true cynic would regard this, like all of McCain’s invocations of honor and integrity, to be just another maneuver in McCain’s never-ending pursuit of more obnoxious moral posturing, but it gets at something fundamental about how McCain has sought to present himself.
McCain exploits the concept of honor and frames every disagreement in terms of honor and dishonor, so it is particularly revealing that he is willing to launch dishonest and dishonorable attacks, because this drives home how much his concept of honor is intertwined with his own visceral reactions to opponents and with his self-interest. Contrary to the conventional pundit interpretation that McCain has “sold his soul” and abandoned his once-honorable former self, the thing to understand about McCain’s lies in this campaign is that he invests these misrepresentations with his utter contempt for his opponents. From McCain’s perspective, this infusion of contempt seems to transform shoddy, baseless attacks that disgrace him into indictments of the other politicians (e.g., Romney wants to surrender in Iraq, Obama would rather lose a war than lose an election). If McCain thinks he is always honorable, resistance to him and his ideas must ultimately be villainous and vicious, and we have seen him deploy his perverse, solipsistic ends-justify-the-means concept of honor against Romney and now against Obama. McCain’s admirers have largely missed this either because they happened to agree with McCain on policy or because they have mistaken his language of honor and principle to refer to the meanings that they attach to these terms.
In any public confrontation that McCain has, he strives to show that he has kept faith with the public and his opponents have betrayed the public trust. This isn’t because McCain is actually some devoted servant of the public interest, but because he has an irrepressible self-righteous streak that he thinks permits him to impugn the integrity of anyone who gets on his nerves or gets in his way. Hence it was not enough for him to find fault with action or inaction by the SEC–Chris Cox must have betrayed the public trust. Because McCain’s views are visceral, not intellectual, and he is not interested in policy detail, everything is a morality play, and it goes without saying that he thinks he is the hero.
As he said countless times during the primaries, he was not interested in winning “in the worst way,” and there were things that he was not going to compromise in the process. This was one reason why many misguided people believed that an Obama v. McCain election would be a high-minded, respect-filled affair, and it is why many of his former admirers have begun lamenting the “changed” McCain. Because both were basing their candidacies on biography and character to such a great degree, I was sure that the campaign would get quite nasty, and so it has. The important thing about McCain’s lying about Obama and his positions, which he has been doing on and off for months, is not that it marks some great break with a previously honorable campaign style, but that it reveals the completely opportunistic approach to campaigning–and policymaking, for that matter–that McCain has embraced his entire career.
Update: It seems that Chait and I have come to much the same conclusion independently.