The Democrats and their McCain problem

Democrats need to give up their infatuation with Sen. John McCain before it’s too late.

Jason Stahl

In my last column, on the torture and detention legislation, which is now headed to the president’s desk for his signature, I ended with a condemnation of the Democrats and the role they played (or, more accurately, did not play) in the “debate” over the legislation. I stand by the words I wrote.

However, it is only fair to note that a majority of Democrats in both houses voted against the final legislation. In the House of Representatives, 160 Democrats voted against it, while 33 voted against it in the Senate. Compare this with the seven Republicans in the House and the one in the Senate who voted against the final legislation. In other words, there is clearly only one Torture Party in the United States, and that party is the Republican Party.

Despite this vote, it still is necessary to clarify specifically where the Democrats went wrong and why. For the answers to these questions, look no further than Sen. John McCain and the infatuation that many Democrats have with the man.

I have never been sure where this infatuation comes from. Maybe it is that McCain appears reasonable when compared to other national Republicans. Maybe it is his personal biography. Or maybe it is the adulation heaped upon McCain by the news media – an adulation which goes back to his 2000 presidential run. Whatever the reason, McCain has never given Democrats in Washington any reason for the kind of praise and trust so many like to heap on him. First and foremost, he is reliably conservative – especially on foreign policy. Yes, sometimes he will take a more moderate position, say on campaign finance, but far more often than not he is a conservative vote in the Senate. Moreover, he has toed the conservative line hard in the past few years because he wants the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

Just as disturbing as McCain’s conservative positions, however, is the boredom he so often displays with the legislative process. As an example, at the end of last year, McCain first tried to get Bush to explicitly outlaw torture through an amendment to a defense bill. He received all sorts of accolades from Washington Democrats and the media only to have Bush declare through a signing statement that he was not bound by the amendment. McCain didn’t make a peep about Bush’s actions.

And so it went with McCain’s newest attempt to outlaw torture in the torture bill which just passed with the Senate. As I said in my previous column, Democrats left the details of the bill to be worked out by McCain and other “maverick Republicans” negotiating with the White House. But, as with his previous efforts to outlaw torture, McCain became bored with the process. He went before the cameras to argue that the bill prohibited torture when it did anything but. Instead, it gave the president power to determine what constituted torture and to keep his list of “approved procedures” secret. Moreover, after McCain was finished with his “negotiations,” the White House inserted all sorts of new authoritarian language which McCain did not challenge. This language included total denial of the right of prisoners to challenge their imprisonment and, most alarmingly, a definition of “illegal enemy combatant” which, according to The New York Times, is so broad, it could lead to “summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal” and be applied to “legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries” solely at the say-so of the president.

And what was the response of Senate Democrats to McCain’s full-fledged capitulation? They thanked him. Towards the end of the Senate debate on the legislation, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin heaped praise on McCain – even though Levin voted against the legislation. Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska who voted for the bill, said he was “willing to follow the lead of Sen. John McCain” because “people respect (him) on these issues.”

Democrats need to get over this McCain infatuation. He is a staunch conservative Republican who is unable to work out compromises in the few cases where he does not toe the conservative line. Moreover, he could be the person that Republicans nominate for president in 2008. For all of these reasons, Democrats need to solve their McCain problem – quickly.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]