David Roberts+ Your Authors @drvox Seattleite transplanted from Tennessee; now blogging for vox.com/ about energy politics. Climate hawk, deficit dove. Not a doctor. Aug. 27, 2018 7 min read + Your Authors

1. All right. I am declaring the period of Enforced McCain Hagiography over. I think every "objective" political journalist has had a chance to give his legacy a tongue bath by now, no? If non-worshipful McCain thoughts hurt your feelings, you might wanna mute this thread.

2. I could tweet about McCain forever, eventually angering & alienating everyone, but instead I'll just focus on the area I know best: climate politics. McCain's adventures there, and the press's reaction, are a perfect distillation of the larger McCain Dynamic.

3. To see the way McCain's climate politics are typically covered, check out this embarrassingly uncritical bit of Hallmark devotional from Holthaus:  https://grist.org/article/john-mccain-was-an-american-climate-hero-too/ 

4. That is a particularly maudlin bit of fanfic, but it's not rare. The standard line is that McCain's work on climate demonstrated his courage, independence, and general brave heroic wonderfulness. But let's think about this a little harder, shall we?

5. In the early 2000s, Bush was in power, having defeated McCain in a nasty primary, and McCain's ego was wounded. He *hated* Bush. And so he spent the early 2000s setting himself up as Bush's nemesis, blocking his efforts & ostentatiously taking "maverick" positions.

6. Also in the early 2000s, climate change policy was off the table. Bush had made clear he wouldn't do anything about it. So had Congress. It was seen as one of those niche liberal feel-good issues. So that made it perfect for McCain.

7. By adopting climate as a pet issue -- proposing the McCain-Lieberman cap&trade bill in 2003 -- he accomplished the McCain trifecta: he irritated the GOP establishment, cemented his reputation as a Centrist Dealmaker, and received waves of adulation from Dems & journalists.

8. But note: it was all upside for him. He *loved* being celebrated as a maverick, *loved* irritating Bush, *loved* being showered with encomiums from journalists. Best of all: the bill (which was weak sauce, BTW) had zero chance of ever coming to a vote, so there was no risk!

9. Then comes 2008. Dems take power. A grassroots conservative backlash begins. Dems put forward a cap&trade bill (stronger but not unlike McCain's 2003 bill) that might actually get votes! Might actually pass! So what does the Courageous Maverick of Integrity do?

10. He immediately starts backpedaling. He starts echoing Tea Party critiques, calling the bill "cap&tax". When the bill reaches the Senate, he starts working out another alternative bill with Lieberman (dividing supporters).

11. And then he finds out he might get a Tea Party primary challenger in his 2010 Senate race. Uh oh, actual political risk! And so brave, brave Sir McCain runs away ...  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/11/as-the-world-burns 

12. McCain ended up getting more than twice the votes that Hayworth did in that primary, but hey, you can't be too careful. (With your career, I mean, not the climate.) I summed up this sorry history in a grumpy 2010 Grist post.  https://grist.org/article/2010-09-15-this-green-doesnt-want-mccain-back-thanks/ 

13. Several features of McCain's climate history are worth noting, because they are so perfectly illustrative of his larger career. a) The press reacted to his every move by casting it in the most flattering possible light. It was the same then as it is now ...

14. ... in that any suggestion that McCain might be acting (like other politicians) from self-interested motives drew looks of wounded, scornful disapproval from the "objective" political media, aka McCain's Cheerleaders. How *dare* you question a Hero, sir?

15. b) When he faced some actual political risk, and thus bailed on his supposed courageous commitments, Dems and journalists lined up to make excuses for him! It was f'ing amazing. "Oh, well, he had a primary challenger, what could you expect, he had to do it."

16. c) And then, after he bailed during the moment of truth, when something might have actually gotten done ... Dems & journalists went right back to praising him as a climate hero! And now that will be his historical legacy. A "hero," b/c he occasionally said good things.

17. d) The net result of all McCain's supposed climate heroism? Nothing. Tons & tons of atmospherics, tons of worshipful interviews, tons of drippy tributes, but no legislation, no policy, no reductions in GHGs. McCain is now being called a "lion of the Senate" ...

18. ... & compared to Ted Kennedy, but the difference is, Kennedy got things done. He accomplished things. What are McCain's concrete accomplishments? (Stopping the GOP from doing horrible things doesn't count.) What legislation? What lives improved?

19. And finally, e) on climate, as in other areas, endless attention is devoted to the few times McCain (ineffectually) bucked his party, but less attention does to the fact that he *supported the party his entire life & overwhelmingly voted with it*.

20. The notion that McCain was good & brave to break w/ his party on climate change is premised on the notion that the GOP is *bad on climate change*. (See also: campaign finance; xenophobia; torture.) But if GOP is bad on that stuff & McCain spent his life supporting the GOP ...

21. ... & loyally voting the party line, then why doesn't he bear responsibility for any of it? Why is he showered with credit for sporadic, unreliable, & generally ineffectual twitches of independence but gets no blame for a lifetime of loyal service to a malign party?

22. It's just weird that he's endlessly praised for occasionally (not often!) stopping his party from doing awful things (for idiosyncratic reasons), but never held responsible for the 98% of the time he supported its awful things. (He fought to kill Obamacare for years!)

23. The fact is, the vast majority of Very Serious Centrists & journalists praising McCain now would find a world in which McCain's policy preferences were implemented horrific & cruel. And so would climate hawks!

24. There's a lot of talk, in these worshipful eulogies, about what McCain "would" have done. But for all his carefully self-cultivated mythology, the fact is, McCain was a "maverick" when it brought him approbation & attention...but never in the face of real political risk.

25. Like Lieberman & that whole cult of obnoxiously self-obsessed Gang of Whatever dealmakers in the Senate, McCain's career has always been devoted to the greater glory of John McCain. He told you he's a hero, so you could tell him he's a hero, so he could say aw shucks.

26. Finally: I'll never persuade his fans/cult of this, but look at the lens through which McCain is assessed. For every good thing, he is celebrated, his motives cast in the purest possible light. For every bad thing, oh, he is But Human, and don't we all make mistakes?

27. I can think of some other public figures who, like McCain, have a) been through a lot of hard times, b) demonstrated their courage, c) made some mistakes, and d) remained doggedly devoted to public service their whole lives. John Kerry, for instance.

28. Do you think, when Kerry dies, the entire DC establishment, including "objective" political reporters, will unite to praise him? Will Republicans rush to offer tributes? Will critics be scolded as disrespectful? Will his mistakes be dismissed as Only Human? Ha. Ha.

29. Or how about Hillary Clinton? Now there's someone who has come through some difficult shit & remained devoted to public service. Do you think Clinton critics will stay quiet when she dies? Will "objective" reporters claims it's disrespectful to criticize her?

30. After all, Kerry & Clinton devoted their entire lives to the types of causes that McCain ever-so-occasionally said mavericky things about. If he's a hero for supporting those things, what are they? Oh, just Democrats, the kind of people who supported healthcare all along.

31. My point is not to demonize McCain. It's just to point out that, in every way that mattered, every way that had any real practical effect (campaigning, votes, legislation), he was a standard right-wing Republican. Every way in which he was NOT a right-wing Republican ...

32. ... was aesthetic, rhetorical, symbolic. He was a master of the *atmospherics* of moderation. And it does not speak well of our political culture or media that those atmospherics so totally disabled everyone's critical facilities & left them a bunch of slobbering sycophants.

33. The McCain being celebrated all over the internet this weekend was the McCain of the Mind, a creature of collective imagination, a projection of something that we desperately *want* to exist.

34. There's the politics of gesture & symbolism, which McCain mastered & our media clearly adores. Then there's the politics of tangibly improving people's lives, at which McCain was no better than most politicians, i.e., shitty. Our obsession with the former does us no favors.

35. Hm, this thread got ridiculously long. Anyway. RIP to John McCain, a very human & ultimately fairly ordinary politician with a mixed & complicated legacy. We should all reflect on why we we feel such an intense need to puff him up into more than that. </fin>

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