John McCain has set himself a pretty hard task. It will not be easy to get elected as the next Republican President of the US following the crimes and incompetence of George Bush. But the former ‘war hero’ turned rightwing ‘truth teller’ just might bring it off. Once Clinton and Obama have torn up each other’s reputations, McCain could slip under the radar. He has built a carefully crafted image as a candidate who represents all the core Republican beliefs (militarism, cutting taxes and expenditures, family values, tough on crime) while being somehow different from Bush (more honest) and in favour of ‘change’. These days everyone needs to be in favour of change.
McCain has traded on his reputation as a war hero to position himself as a patriot who spent five and a half years in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ after his plane was shot down on 26 October 1967 while dropping its load of deadly bombs on Vietnamese ‘infrastructure’. While thousands refused to serve in Vietnam (evading the draft), McCain was a willing volunteer. It is only thanks to Main Van On, a 50-year-old Hanoi resident, that McCain is on the scene at all. He dived into Trac Bach Lake in Hanoi to rescue the drowning flyer. Needless to say, US bomber pilots were not popular in Hanoi, where thousands died under a hail of US bombs. There is no doubt that McCain was brutally treated as a prisoner. To his credit, he has not romanticized his experiences. According to the author Ted Rall, McCain has admitted to being a war criminal (‘I bombed innocent women and children,’ he said on the TV show 60 Minutes in 1997) and to having co-operated with his captors to get medical treatment. Yet somehow this morally ambiguous experience has morphed into John McCain, war hero. His campaign bus is adorned with ‘No Surrender’ stickers and he never bothers to correct the avalanche of rightwing media that celebrates his heroism. Electing someone because they are ‘a war hero’, while ignoring the validity of the war, is a good way to ensure a lot more wars in the near future.
Although a militant supporter of the war in Iraq, McCain has refused to endorse the use of torture (without using the word) by the Bush administration. He famously championed an anti-torture Bill, but refused to break with Bush when he issued an interpretive ‘signing statement’ that in effect made the Bill useless. McCain’s record on other issues in the Senate is similarly elusive. He takes a hard conservative stance about 95 per cent of the time, but the other 5 he manages to make a high-profile break with Bush – immigration, election finance reform and special interests have been recent examples. In the end he either backs down or sponsors a weak bi-partisan Bill, usually a watered-down version of Republican policy. Instant maverick! But he seldom loses a sense of the main prize: power.
McCain’s reputation as an honest reformer is similarly ambiguous. This is nowhere clearer than the Reform Institute, funded by McCain to fight for ‘electoral reform’ and against ‘special interests’. The Institute is staffed largely by people with histories as lobbyists for special interests and is a thinly-veiled campaign tool for McCain. The Institute drew unwanted public scrutiny recently when McCain attacked the maverick financier George Soros, despite the fact that Soros had helped get the Reform Institute off the ground.
McCain trades on the same faux, ‘aw shucks’, good ole boy modesty that served George Bush so well. But not far below the surface is a reputation for being quick to anger. The conservative daily The Arizona Republic issued a warning against his ‘volcanic’ temper and added that ‘there is also reason seriously to question whether he has the temperament and political skills we want in the next president’. He remains a controversial figure in his Senatorial seat out in the Arizona desert.
McCain is a self-confessed lightweight when it comes to economic issues. This is bad news in a country reeling under an almost nine trillion dollar deficit, a huge real estate crisis and a war in Iraq that has already run up three trillion dollars in bills. McCain wants to cut more taxes, while continuing (even expanding) the Iraq War and maybe starting others in places like Iran and Venezuela if their governments don’t kowtow to US power. His economic point man is former Senator Phil Gramm, who spearheaded the deregulation of Wall Street in the late 1990s. Remember Enron? According to University of Texas economist James Galbraith, Gramm is ‘an advocate of every predatory and rapacious element that the financial sector has’.
But if you are poor and in need of healthcare or about to lose your home in the sub-prime scandal, McCain provides the same old Republican tough-love formula of ‘let the market decide’ and ‘stand on your own two feet’. He subscribes to the fantasy that competition amongst providers will reduce healthcare costs. But at least under a McCain administration there should be lots of work for poor people – fighting all those wars to keep the empire intact.