April 28, 2008

Captain McQueeg, Probably the Wrong Man for this Typhoon, Too

"Ah, but the strawberries! That's, that's where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with, with geometric logic, that, that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist."

In the penultimate scene of "The Caine Mutiny" Captain Queeg breaks down under the clever cross-examination of Officer Maryk's defense attorney and reveals himself a combat-fatigued emotional basket case who, in fact, did pose a risk to the Caine during the typhoon where he was relieved of his duty. In the highly choreographed theatre of presidential politics, we're unlikely to see our own Captain McQueeq, John McCain, undergo a similar dissolution. True, he has a bad temper and a querulous personality generally, his inconsistency on key issues looks a lot like mental instability, and he's hiding his medical records, which is ominous given his history of recurrent melanoma and his age. Nevertheless, we would have to wait for the equivalent of a national typhoon to see how Johnny Mac would respond to a crisis, and one thing is certain: between the Januaries of 2009 and 2013, there are going to be a whole bunch of crises.

As far as I can see, McCain's popularity rests on his now legendary ordeal as a POW in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Any reference to McCain must be preceded or immediately followed by the honorific "war hero." It is bad form, except in the "radical" precincts of the Internet, to mention that McCain was shot down over Hanoi while dropping bombs on the civilian population in a war that, in retrospect, is now regarded as useless at best or immoral at worst. Had he not been captured and imprisoned, then his war service record would be vulnerable to Swift Boat tactics of Rovian operators. The North Vietnamese apparently found out McCain was the son and grandson of John Sidney McCains I&II, who were both four star admirals in the Navy, and that they had on their hands John Sidney McCain III. They wanted to release him as a publicity stunt but McCain demurred. His canonization followed.

McCain apparently graduated in the bottom five of his class at Annapolis. His appointment to the Academy was naturally a forgone conclusion, given his lineage. I'm inclined to think that the squandering of his opportunity derived more from native incompetence than a lack of diligence. He just doesn't seem very smart at all. For all the hoopla that surrounds his "maverick" imago, I've never actually heard him say anything particularly intelligent. His questioning of Rumsfeld and the military during Abu Ghraib and the military budget hearings for Iraq was dull, clumsy and feckless, even by Senate standards, and that's saying a lot. He tried for a photo op type moment in his questions ("What were the instructions to the guards?," as if that would trap someone) and he got nowhere. If I had to guess, I'd say he's got less going upstairs than the present resident of the White House, a chilling thought indeed. Other than flying jets and being a fairly easily corrupted Congress guy, he doesn't seem to have had any real life experiences that would equip him to oversee the economy or redirect our technological future. This American infatuation with dumb guys as president seems like a luxury we just can't afford anymore.

There are jarring contradictions between the folksy persona he cultivates and his real life. While he plays the part of a populist, in reality he's rich by way of his second wife, the beer distribution heiress. (I thought beer distributorships were given exclusively to former NFL linemen after retirement.) He travels around in her private jet and bunks down in one of her eight homes, depending on his mood. He rails against corporate influence in Washington while maintaining a campaign staff full of lobbyists. He denies any impropriety in his relationship with the lobbyist Vicki Iseman, but she has disappeared into some sort of private witness protection program arranged by "her" lawyer, Robert Bennett. McCain is the big "campaign reform guy," lending his name to McCain-Feingold, but he was one of the slimeballs caught up in the dirty racket of the Keating Five, going to bat for the serial fleecer Charles Keating during the S&L crisis. His multi-hued positions on the torture question, which was supposed to be one of his signature issues given his background, are nearly impossible to follow. He appeared to acquiesce in Bush's signing statement vitiating the whole purpose of restricting non-military interrogators to the rules of the Army Field Manual. He's called the Evangelical Right "agents of intolerance," but avidly seeks the endorsement of End Times nut jobs like John Hagee. He now characterizes his previous opposition to the Iraq war as simply a disapproval of Donald Rumsfeld's leadership style, and is probably the most hawkish Washington pol found outside Dick Cheney's office.

His economic program, especially the tax cuts, are reminiscent of Captain Queeg's refusal to right the ship during the typhoon. McCain's fundamental dishonesty in calling a scheduled sundowning of the Bush tax cuts a "Democratic tax increase" was highlighted recently in Paul Krugman's column. Bush's Congress lowered the top marginal income rate to 35% from the Clinton era 39.6% and also lowered the effective estate tax. The tax cutting, as passed, was intended to be temporary, expiring in 2011. McCain now says that if the Democratically controlled House does not pass a new bill to make the tax cuts permanent that they are "passing a tax increase." This is fraudulent; Congress is under no obligation to pass new legislation to enable Bush (and now McQueeg) to pretend that temporary legislation was in fact permanent from the get-go, and that, therefore, a failure to change Bush's plan amounts to a bill to repeal the tax cuts. The repeal was built into the original amendment of the tax code. Anyway, if McCain is such a populist, why doesn't he ruffle the feathers of the hedge fund industry and subject their billionaire managers to ordinary income tax rates instead of allowing them to use the capital gains rate?

Everything about McCain's platform is essentially rooted in the failures of the past, and the country can't afford that approach. His strategy will deepen the financial quagmire of the national debt and the Iraq war at a point where we're running out of international creditors to float our boat. The dollar is faltering because its petro-dollar stability is now undermined by global competition for oil. McCain wants to increase military spending at a point where we already outspend all potential threats combined; other nations are moving on to dealing with what is called outside U.S. borders "objective reality."

Just go back to the Senate and roll your ball bearings, McQueeg. The country really can't afford another experiment in faked personality.

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