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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Prodigal Son

I’ve just read the Meridian, Mississippi speech with which John McCain launched his “biography tour,” and found it more interesting and troubling than I expected.
Most obviously, I can’t recall any major speech by a president or presidential candidate that was devoted so thoroughly to the subject of the speaker’s own family background–not just the immediate family (which, for example, was the background theme in Richard Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, and in Bill Clinton’s “Place Called Hope” speech, and is obviously important to Barack Obama’s “story”), but the Family Heritage. McCain goes into considerable detail to establish himself as the scion of a very old (by American standards) and very distinguished warrior tribe, whose traditions he first spurned and then half-heartedly embraced, before rediscovering them in the crucible of his imprisonment at the Hanoi Hilton.
In so doing, McCain runs afoul of two pretty important American political traditions: ambivalence towards military leaders in politics, and an expectation of modesty about the accomplishments of one’s forebears.
On the first point, yes, five (W.H. Harrison, Jackson, Taylor, Grant and Eisenhower) or perhaps six (if you add the planter-soldier George Washington) American presidents were professional soldiers. Several others were wartime military leaders but not really career military professionals (Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and Teddy Roosevelt). But the list of military leaders who sought and failed to obtain the presidency is equally long, from Winfield Scott and George McClellan to Scott’s namesake W.S. Hancock, to Leonard Wood, to Douglas MacArthur, to Alexander Haig, to Wes Clark. And among those who succeeded, Jackson, Grant and Eisenhower were almost universally revered national heroes of an unparalleled magnitude.
While there’s nothing uncommon or surprising about John McCain’s highlighting of his own military record, his decision to identify himself as primarily the product of the military ethic, by family background as well as by personal experience, is unusual, and perhaps risky in a country that has always honored professional warriors but has also insisted on civilian control of the military. It’s no accident that the last Annapolis graduate to become president, Jimmy Carter, chose to identify himself as a peanut farmer rather than as a nuclear submarine officer.
McCain’s insistence on establishing a distinguished pedigree is counter-intuitive as well. The current president of the United States, after all, went to inordinate lengths to create a public persona remote from his actual aristocratic background as grandson of a U.S. senator and son of a president. Another president who often touted his own military service–John F. Kennedy–did so in no small part to provide a common link to Americans who might otherwise dwell on his father’s wealth and political connections. FDR’s polio, and TR’s cowboy-hunter-soldier machismo, offset their elite backgrounds. And most American presidents and presidential candidates have talked about their ancestors mainly to stress their humble roots, and thus accentuate their own accomplishments. In the Meridian speech and elsewhere, John McCain seems to be visibly struggling, even today, to live up to his family’s martial tradition. It’s all pretty remarkable.
The theme of the callow young man achieving maturity and then complete identification with his patrimony is as old as the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. It’s complicated in McCain’s case by the fact that his callowness, by his own account, appears to have survived the Hanoi Hilton and persisted well into late-middle-age and into his political career (viz. the admitted serial carousing, not to mention the Keating Five).
It’s tempting to speculate that by design or accident, McCain’s self-description is an analogy for his latest political transformation from the “maverick” who flirted (or at a minimum, whose staff flirted) with becoming John Kerry’s running-mate in 2004 to today’s reinvented conservative. He’s rebelled against his heritage, but now, in the crucible of this campaign, McCain is falling back on the fundamentals of family, faith, party, ideology, and yes, maybe even a hereditary strain of military jingoism, and is determined, as prodigals often are, to live up to the heritage to a fault. This must be immensely reassuring to the conservatives who have for so long mistrusted him. And it’s an appeal that is also seductive for the many Americans who constantly struggle to reconcile libertarian impulses with the tug of traditions, even bad traditions.
Maybe this is all emphemeral, and at some point John McCain will abandon the biographical message to focus on policy issues. But Democrats need to understand what he’s trying to do in presenting himself as the embodiment of the Prodigal Son seeking to lead the Prodigal Nation back to its heritage of greatness, and react accordingly. In 1996 Bob Dole offered himself as “the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth… a time of tranquillity, faith, and confidence in action.” Bill Clinton successfully turned that offer into a contrast between nostalgic reaction and progressive action. At present, McCain is advancing a more appealing version of Dole’s political package, gussied up with plenty of Prodigal policy offerings that will make it harder to typecast him as reactionary. Exposing him will not just be a matter of deriding media credulity or hammering his voting record in the Senate. It will require an unwavering spotlight on his basic message and its troubling implications.
In a 1999 review of McCain’s memoir “Faith of My Fathers,” and of Robert Timberg’s hagiographical “John McCain: An American Odyssey,” Nathanial Tripp offered this assessement of both books and of the martial hymn that inspired the title of the first:

The problem with this hymn, and these books, is that they are not about leadership, they are about followership. Admittedly, the hymn’s type of rhetoric seems to have an almost narcotic effect on some voters, but distrust of authority is a salient legacy of Vietnam. Furthermore, civil leadership demands humanity, compassion and the skills of negotiation and compromise, which are often contrary to the military mind. Chimerically, McCain may go from the Keating scandal to campaign reform, from heavy smoking to anti-tobacco legislation, setting a zigzag course toward the White House and defying those who will put him in a box. But there is something hauntingly familiar about his confusion of mission with personal ambition.

This remains an important observation. If John McCain’s main credential for presidential leadership is his “followership” of the military traditions of his forefathers and the ideological traditions of the GOP, then the rest of us should rightly object to the harnessing of our future to his past.

9 comments on “Prodigal Son

  1. johnmorris on

    Carter, who graduated from Annapolis in 1946, served aboard the USS Wyoming and USS Mississippi, both Battleships and aboard the Pomfrey SS-391 and the Barracuda SSK-1, (as Executive officer). He was a veteran of the Korean conflict. He was named to Rickover’s staff after qualifying as a Nuclear Engineer and trained the engineering crew of the Seawolf, SSN-1, before resigning to take up his family’s farm upon the death of his father. The only President with more military service than Carter’s was Eisenhower.

  2. tim on

    The reason Lt Carter (President) did not advertise himself as a nuclear submariner is that he was NOT. While he served on Adm. Rickover’s staff, he neither completed the nuclear power training program nor was he EVER assigned to a nuclear submarine.

  3. alton on

    I also find it deeply troubling, but for a different reason. Obama, whose father was Kenyan and who spent part of his childhood abroad, has the delegate lead on the Democratic side. McCain goes to the South and talks about his family’s genealogy? This speech may have an incidental prodigal son storyline, but it looks like something more crass to me. McCain is just making sure everyone down home knows who the “real” American is. I think you may have given this narrative a far more thoughtful analysis than it deserves.

  4. OzJohnnie on

    “Dumb as policy” but appealing to “Americans on a cultural level.”
    Best watch that you don’t end up in a position where your conclusion on why McCain is winning (if it comes to that) is that Americans are dumb. That’s another argument, that while maybe appealing to a losing party, is not one that will fly.
    McCain has some areas of particular weakness which can erode his base’s support:
    * Amnesty/Immigration
    * Party loyalty
    * Judges
    Two of those areas he is weak because he agrees with the Democrat position. It’s difficult for Dems to force a wedge in those places. But the third, party loyalty, is the place to attack.
    So many Republicans are resigning themselves to a ‘hold the nose’ vote. At least McCain is better than any of the Dems type argument. And that loyalty is increasing among Republicans because it looks like there is a chance McCain might actually pull this off – people are willing to back a winner.
    The question is: How to undermine that weak loyalty? This is how: don’t argue the issues themselves, but the reasons for supporting an issue. Conservatives despise the ‘Maverick’ because he chooses issues based on his particular view, not because of the principles of the Conservative Movement. For example, on the two other issues I list…
    Judges: Republicans fear that McCain will settle for a liberal judge and not try for another Alito or Scalia. Re-enforce that fear not by promising conservative judges (like the Dems would ever do that anyway) but by promising to nominate judges that party believes in. List names. Talk about characteristics. And make McCain do the same. No conservative will ever believe him and they will respect him less for pandering to them.
    Immigration: McCain’s position is the Dem’s position. Talk about immigration and get him to agree with the Dem candidate. Even if the Dem has to really tone down the platform to do it, the moment McCain is agreeable on immigration with a Dem candidate, then the immigration conservatives are out the door and they ain’t coming back.
    Write yourself a blog post along those lines, maybe picking up two or three more weaknesses McCain has with the conservative base and find out ways for McCain either to admit or deny the weakness. Do that, and ignore the character issues, and you got yourself an election.
    (I take commission payments, thanks very much 😉 )

  5. Ezra on

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.
    The speech recalls very strongly Sen. Jim Webb’s autoethnography “Born Fighting,” which also provides a cultural context for McCain’s foreign policy appeal. Webb describes Scots-Irish (aka the “angry white man” voter) as stubborn and bellicose, proud of loyalty and physical courage (even when stupid) — a remnant of Hatfields and McCoys. In Webb’s history the citizen-soldier is always the political leader.
    That ethnic memory may be bogus but it’s certainly a very real ideological strain, in pop culture patriotism (“my country right or wrong”) and talk radio (against “elites”). In a way it’s like a de-racialized Southern Strategy.
    Ultimately it’s hard politically to pin McCain down on any domestic issues, or even on a particular path through Iraq. But he’s making it very clear that he intends to kick ass and never back down, no matter what, in order to preserve America’s honor. That’s dumb as policy but it has a core appeal to Americans on a cultural level.

  6. T-web on

    I wonder how much of McCain’s approach is designed to undercut Obama’s own use of biography and inspirational rhetoric as campaign tools. If McCain can successfully establish himself as a candidate with an inspiring personal history, doesn’t that undercut a good chunk of Obama’s appeal?

  7. OzJohnnie on

    Two points:
    One, in the context of being a professional soldier as described in your response above, McCain does not claim that. Instead he is claiming the best of both worlds: the pedigree of the professional soldier but the character of the citizen soldier. This distinction is important because it has all the benefits of honor, duty and maturity associated with the professional solder, while maintaining the legacy of civilian control and reasonableness in crisis. An important ‘base’ in the context of my next point.
    Two, the purpose of this ‘character’ campaign is not to provide a reason to vote for McCain, but to establish an unassailable base of character from which he can campaign. He aims to demonstrate that he is the man we all wish we could be. That he has the character, fortitude and maturity that only the best men ever develop. And from that platform, he is almost immune to attack. Dean has already stumbled by calling him an opportunist. And opportunist for having his arms repeatedly broken and dislocated? That argument will never fly. And you flirt with the same mistake by suggesting he be labeled as a follower rather than a leader. The public’s reaction: if he’s a follower, then we need more ‘leaders’ like him who follow.
    McCain will not be attacked successfully on character unless he demonstrates bad character on this campaign (or a Republican breaks ranks and gives out the dirt – and that won’t happen with the low funding and support they have this cycle. They just can’t afford any bickering at all). Interestingly, the entire Obama/Clinton dog fight is an ever quickening descent into bad character – playing right into McCain’s increasingly unassailable strength.
    The only place to fight him is on policy, and that’s what the Republicans tried in the primaries, but McCain’s drift to the center beat the competition. The Dem’s increasing drift further left is leaving more territory for McCain to claim, as there is no one on the right to squeeze him.
    To beat McCain, the Dem candidate must drop the dog fighting and jog to the right. With the continuing battle for nomination, neither candidate has that luxury. I don’t think a person could sit down and write a better script for a McCain victory.
    There was only one way for him to grab the Republican nomination, and he found it. And there is only one way a Republican can with this Presidential election, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look like every single break is going McCain’s way.

  8. edkilgore on

    You will note that the reference in question was to “professional soldiers,” not “those elected president on the basis of their military service.” Many early U.S. leaders (notably General Alexander Hamilton and Colonel Aaron Burr) had very distinguished military records, and probably wouldn’t have succeeded without them, but weren’t professional soldiers in the sense of McCain’s forebears, career officers trained exclusively as soldiers and sailors. GW is a closer case, since he not only commanded American troops in the Revolution, but served in the British military much earlier. But he thought of himself as a farmer first and as a statesman and soldier second and third.
    Thanks for the comment.
    Ed Kilgore

  9. Kirk Petersen on

    I was so baffled I had to register so I could post a question. How can there be any ambiguity about the fact that George Washington should be included on the list of men who became president on the basis of their military service?


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