This weekend, while reading the latest polling data on John McCain, Sarah Palin, and their appeal—or growing lack of it—among “independent women voters,” it suddenly dawned on me: I am, in fact, one of these elusive independent woman voters, and I have the credentials to prove it. For the last couple of decades, I’ve sometimes voted Democratic, sometimes Republican. I’m even a registered independent, though I did think of switching to the Republican Party to vote for John McCain in 2000. But because the last political party I truly felt comfortable with was Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party (I lived in England in the 1980s and ‘90s), I didn’t actually do it.
The larger point, though, is that if I’m not voting for McCain—and, after a long struggle, I’ve realized that I’m not—maybe it’s worth explaining why, because I suspect there are other independent voters who feel the same way. It’s not his campaign, disjointed though that’s been, that finally repulses me; it’s his rapidly deteriorating, increasingly anti-intellectual, no longer even recognizably conservative Republican Party. His problems are not technical, to do with ads, fund raising, and tactics, as some have suggested. They are institutional, to do with his colleagues, his advisers, and his supporters.
I should say here that I know McCain slightly: He spoke at a party given for a book I wrote a few years ago, though I think that was as much because of the subject (Communist prison camps) as the author. But it’s not his personality I admire most. Far more important is his knowledge of foreign affairs, an understanding that goes well beyond an ability to guess correctly the name of the Pakistani president. McCain not only knows the names; he knows the people—and by this I mean not just foreign presidents but foreign members of parliament, journalists, generals. He goes to Germany every year, visits Vietnam often, can talk intelligently about Belarus and Uzbekistan. I’ve heard him do it. Let’s just say that’s one of the things that distinguished him, for me, from our current president, who once confessed that “this foreign-policy stuff is a little frustrating.”
The second thing I liked about McCain was the deliberate distance he always kept from the nuttier wing of his party and, simultaneously, the loyalty he’s shown to a recognizably conservative budgetary philosophy, something that many congressional Republicans abandoned long ago. Fiscal conservatism, balanced budgets, sober spending—all these principles have been brushed away as so much nonsense for the last eight years by Republicans more interested in grandstanding about how much they hate Washington. McCain was one of the few to keep talking about these principles. He was also one of shockingly few to understand that there is nothing American, let alone conservative, about torture and that a battle for civilized values could not be won by uncivilized means.
Finally, I admired McCain’s willingness to tackle politically risky issues like immigration, the debate about which has long been drenched in hypocrisy. Those who want to ban it are illogically denying both the role that immigrants, especially the millions of illegal immigrants, already play in the American economy, as well as the improbability of forced deportations; those who want to allow it without restriction don’t acknowledge the security risks. McCain tried to put together a bipartisan coalition in an effort to find a rational solution. He failed—blocked by the ideologues in his party.
But if these traits appealed to me, I’m guessing they would have appealed to other independents, too. Why, then, has McCain spent the last four months running away from them? The appointment of Sarah Palin—inspired by his closest colleagues—turned out not to be a “maverick” move but, rather, a concession to those Republicans who think foreign policy can be conducted using a series of clichés and those in his party who shout down the federal government while quietly raking in federal subsidies. Though McCain has the one of the best records of bipartisanship in the Senate, he has let his campaign appeal to his party’s extremes. Though he is a true foreign-policy intellectual, his supporters cultivate ignorance and fear: Watch Sean Hannity’s “Obama & Friends: History of Radicalism” if you don’t believe me. Worse, in a fatal effort to appeal to the least thoughtful, most partisan elements of his base, McCain has moved away from his previous positions on torture and immigration. Maybe that’s all tactics, and maybe the “real” McCain will ditch the awful ideologues after Nov. 4 if, by some miracle, he happens to win. But how can I know that will happen?
Here’s what I do know: I would give anything to rewrite history and make McCain president in 2000. But in 2008, I don’t think I can vote for him. Barack Obama is indeed the least experienced, least tested candidate in modern presidential history. But at least if he wins, I can be sure that the mobs who cry “terrorist” at the sound of his name will be kept away—far away—from the White House.