Saturday, June 14, 2008

I Finally Understand John McCain

Thursday John McCain came back to New Hampshire for the first time, I think, since the primary. I saw him in Nashua, in the gym at Daniel Webster College, along with maybe 450-500 other people.

I thought about writing up the event immediately as a news piece for Daily Kos, but it actually wasn't that newsy. Or maybe the newslessness was the news: Other than a few references to Obama, McCain is saying more-or-less the same stuff he was when he was running for the Republican nomination. (He even repeated a joke I'd heard before: Two prison inmates are standing in the chow line, and one says to the other, "You know, the food was a lot better here when you were governor.") Maybe that's an admirable consistency, or maybe it means he's still trying to pull the Republican Party together.

The thing worth writing about, I eventually decided, is that I think I finally get McCain. You see, the paradox of McCain is pretty simple: He has this strong general message that government spending is out of control, and that Congress needs a president strong enough to say NO to its wasteful ways, so that we can continue to cut taxes and yet return to fiscal responsibility. But when the audience asks him about any particular thing the government does, he promises to continue it or even do more of it: He wants to stay in Iraq as long as it takes, keep Social Security and Medicare strong, take care of veterans, make health care and college educations affordable, start a land-a-man-on-the-Moon-like program to make the United States independent of foreign oil, defend our borders against illegal immigration, and on and on and on. He rails against procedural stuff like Congressional earmarks, but never once does he say, "Here's an expensive government service that the American people are going to have to get along without."

And he does all this with great conviction, not with the discomfort he shows when he knows he's lying.

But you know what he does talk about? The Bridge to Nowhere -- the $300-400 million project to build a bridge to Gravina Island in Alaska. It was inserted into the 2005 Transportation Equity Act by Alaska's Republican Senator Ted Stevens, got a lot of bad press, and was canceled in 2007 by Alaska's governor. This never-built bridge is part of McCain's regular stump speech, and he mentioned it twice Thursday.

Kind of curious, don't you think, that a non-existent bridge deserves so much attention. By contrast, the actual bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis last summer doesn't come up at all.

I think I finally understand what's going on there. For McCain (as for most of us, I think), government is one of those notions like Life or Truth. It's just too big to think about directly. There was no multi-trillion-dollar government on the prehistoric savannas of Africa, so our brains didn't evolve a handle for one. Instead, each of us has one example (or maybe a handful of examples) that represent for us what government really means. Those examples are mostly unconscious, so if you ask somebody "What specific event sums up government for you?" they probably won't know what to say. But if you listen to them long enough, you'll start to hear it.

Take my Dad, for example. For him, government is the farm loan program that kept my grandfather from going bankrupt during the Depression, when Dad was just a boy. It was a loan, not a gift, and it eventually got paid off. But it kept the wolf from the door long enough for hard work and the natural fertility of the soil to perform its magic. (Dad still owns that farm -- he rents it to my cousin.) Dad knows deep down that when you have a run of bad luck, government can keep you in the game long enough for things to turn around. So when you talk about cutting government, he starts wondering who's going to have to go bust.

For Ronald Reagan, by contrast, government was the welfare queen who, he claimed, used multiple identities to bilk the government out of enough money to pay for her Cadillac. Government makes us suckers. It collects our money and then doesn't watch over it the way we would.

Do I need to point out that Dad's still a New Deal Democrat and Ronald Reagan was a Republican?

The same event can imprint government in many divergent ways. Take Hurricane Katrina. Some people for the rest of their lives will think of government as the helicopter that lifts you off your roof without waiting for proof of who you are or what you can afford. Others will think of government as the people who leave you to rot in the SuperDome because you're black or poor. Others will remember the thousands of trailers that sat empty in Arkansas because red tape prevented them from being moved to places where homeless people needed them.

And none of them will be wrong. All those things are part of what government is.

For John McCain, government is the Bridge to Nowhere. It's big and wasteful and if you just didn't do it hardly anybody would suffer. The actual Bridge to Nowhere, if it had been built, would have been about a hundredth of a percent of one year's federal spending.

If it symbolizes the whole government, though, then there must be trillions you could save. And when somebody asks, "What about the student loan that lets me go to college even though my hard-working parents can't afford to send me?" or "What about the VA hospital that gave me an artificial leg after I stepped on an IED outside of Mosul?" -- well, McCain didn't mean that government.

He meant the government that builds all those bridges to nowhere.