The Candidate Formerly Known as “Maverick”


Four years ago, the Republican hatchet squad took a nuanced remark by John Kerry about his voting record on the Iraq war and labeled him “flip-flopper.” Thus was born a nasty, schoolyard name-calling attack against Kerry that was used in advertisements, Republican talking points, and by right-wing (and even mainstream) hacks throughout the fall of 2004. It was used by John McCain himself, in attacking Kerry.

Last night, Kerry delivered a speech last night at the Democratic National Convention — one that had to have felt a little like payback for those 2004 attacks. The subject was: the flip flops of the candidate formerly known as “Maverick.”

Here we are four years later, and as much as the wishful thinking of the Republican machine hopes that the Democrats (and the American public) might not have noticed, Senator McCain has become quite the adept flip-flopper. And I’m not referring to nuanced and reasoned policy shifts or voting. I mean ham-handed, in your face, wholesale change of political personality. And John Kerry was the perfect person to make that perfectly and explicitly clear.

Kerry gave us the whole laundry list of the flip-flops, big-time flip flops of the candidate John McCain. Maverick? McCain? No way! No more! No how!

“To those who still believe in the myth of a maverick instead of the reality of a politician, I say, let’s compare Senator McCain to candidate McCain,” began Senator Kerry, just warming up.

  • “Candidate McCain now supports the wartime tax cuts that Senator McCain once denounced as immoral.
  • “Candidate McCain criticizes Senator McCain’s own climate change bill.
  • “Candidate McCain says he would now vote against the immigration bill that Sen. McCain wrote.

“Are you kidding? Talk about being for it before you’re against it.” Zing! You’ve gotta love it, Kerry using the Republican’s own words against him. That had to feel like the sweetest moment of the evening for Kerry. And a line he’s probably been aching to use for months, if not years.

“Let me tell you, before he ever debates Barack Obama, John McCain should finish the debate with himself,” continued Kerry, firing with particular precision. Just where does candidate McCain stand on the policies of Senator “Maverick” McCain, hmmm?

“And what’s more, Senator McCain, who once railed against the smears of Karl Rove when he was the target, has morphed into candidate McCain who is using the same Rove tactics and the same Rove staff to repeat the same old politics of fear and smear.”

And don’t tell me that both McCain and Obama are using dirty tactics. That’s simply a moral relativism that doesn’t wash. McCain and his team strike fear by insinuation, using Obama’s unique background to suggest he may not be quite as American, not as patriotic, as McCain.

Obama’s commercial about McCain’s houses (called by some an attack) is relevant, because it shows him to be out of touch economically with middle class America. Anyone who can’t remember how many houses they own (even if they’re owned by a spouse) may not feel the pain of many Americans (no matter how many years he may have spent in the Hanoi Hilton).

But Kerry went on to remind us all that it’s not necessarily how many years experience you have (after all, Cheney-Rumsfeld is about as experienced as you get in a foreign policy team). It’s all about judgment; keeping cool in a crisis and surrounding yourself with people who will disagree and debate; argue, and keep you from the arrogance that the presidency can bring to bear. Ideologues make bad foreign policy, as we have seen.

And that’s not all. Kerry also made the point that all along the way, from September 11, 2001, to today’s foreign policy decisions, Obama has been right. McCain has been wrong. “Time and again,” Kerry said, “Barack Obama has seen farther, thought harder, and listened better. And time and again, Barack Obama has been proven right.”

The Rove-Bush-McCain machine will try to tap in to fear; the Obama campaign will give us a vision for the future. Voters will have to decide for themselves to whose voice they will listen.

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