The John McCain of 2000 was the true maverick of the Republican Party - with young George W. Bush all-but anointed, McCain still chose to run against him for the party nomination, in a fight he had to know he wasn't going to win. But fight he did nevertheless... he criticised Bush's inexperience, his ties to organized religion ("agents of intolerance", he called them), his very credentials... McCain offered instead a moderate, middle-of-the-road approach heavy on experience and light on political dogma.
The Bush machine, led by Karl Rove, crushed McCain handily.
I liked that John McCain. I'm a moderate by Canadian standards (so, a leftist by American standards), and I would have voted for that John McCain, over the AlGore-tron 3000.
Fast forward to 2008. McCain, having been judged to have "behaved himself" over the past 8 years, gets the nod from the back-room GOP strategists. He's already taken his best shot in 2000, and he's down on his luck in this nomination race. He's broken, and hemorrhaging money, but has name recognition, a compelling life's story and has lost most of his maverick tendencies. He's a "manageable candidate", who will do what he's told. So, the deal is struck: John, you'll be our nominee, but you follow OUR lead. Clearly, your way didn't work in 2000, and it's not working now.
McCain capitulates. And we all lose.
Nation, if Barack Obama had been running against the John McCain of 2000, the results of this election likely wouldn't have been all that different, on paper. Barack Obama would still have won, and possibly by an even larger margin (as McCain would almost certainly have alienated the religious right). He was going to lose, either way. But he sold himself out to win the party nomination.
If the John McCain of 2000 had been running, he would have picked a running mate who could actually hold a candle to Joe Biden. If the John McCain of 2000 had been running, he would have looked down from his podium last night and scolded, in the harshest tone possible, the idiots who were booing and screaming party slogans when he invoked the name of their next President. And if the John McCain of 2000 had been running, he would have elevated the debate.
We would have spent the past months listening to McCain and Obama debate policy. Talking about things that matter. Discussing how to fix the problems that America faces, and how to avoid more problems like them in the future. Maybe even our own "Santos/Vinick" debate. Instead, we got innuendo about William Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, an aunt in the country illegally, and Obama's middle name. We got shouts of "terrorist!" and "kill him!" at Republican rallies when Obama's name was mentioned.
John McCain could have raised the bar for political discourse in this campaign, and in so doing, he could have changed politics forever. He could have been remembered as the man who went toe-to-toe with Barack Obama, always respectful and thoughtful, debating ideas and not personalities, and went down swinging. He could have run a clean campaign, free of the innuendo and half-truths that we in the west have come to just accept as an inevitability of the political process. And if anyone on his campaign, from his VP pick to local poll captains, had done or said anything to contradict McCain's message of inclusion and respectful discourse, he could have sent them packing. He could have done all that, and restored America's faith, indeed all of Western Civilization's faith, in the capacity of politics to be about something other than the avaricious pursuit of power for power's sake, by any means necessary. He could have done it.
But John McCain surrendered. He gave up the moral high ground, and control of his own brand, in an effort to win power, and failed spectacularly.
John McCain let us all down not by losing, but in HOW he lost.
We saw flashes of the old John over the course of this campaign... flashes that were, no doubt, stamped down as soon as he got behind closed doors with the party strategists. Had he "gone maverick", gone off-script, and reasserted himself, he could have pulled off a brilliant reversal - still ultimately losing, but doing so with honour and absolute dignity.
But, ultimately, McCain won't be remembered as the man who helped save politics by fighting valiantly and losing. He won't have his "Alamo" moment. He laid down with dogs, and got whipped like one. When he looks in the mirror today, I firmly believe that will be his greatest regret: Not that he lost, but that he did so only after first giving up on himself. He sold out his own legacy to appeal to the party's base. THAT is how John McCain will be remembered in the history books.
You let us down, John. And it breaks my heart to say it.