Among the current criticisms being leveled by politicians of both parties against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), none is quite so dispiriting as the charge that he is a "maverick"--that he doesn't play well with others or follow his leaders. These critics would apparently have us believe that our leaders in Washington are men of Jeffersonian vision and Lincolnian wisdom, whose enlightened ideas would long since have been enacted but for the intransigence of "mavericks" like McCain.
But can anyone name a single recent legislative proposal promoted successfully by leaders of either party that has dealt effectively with an issue of genuine concern to a majority of Americans? How is it, then, that when someone has the courage and wit to try to deal with serious problems of acknowledged importance--say campaign finance reform, pork-barrel spending or the damage done by cigarettes--he is termed a maverick? Surely we have managed to turn rational analysis upside down.
My problem is not so much with the maverick label--which probably helps McCain in the minds of most people--but rather with what it says about the dumbing down of political discourse in America. We have become so accepting of mediocrity in our public policy debate that when someone has the gumption and courage to conceive and push an effective solution to a problem, he is labeled as odd, and his very stability becomes the subject of snide speculation.
The practice of asserting vacuous or unprincipled notions as national policy was introduced by President Clinton soon after his inauguration in 1993. Now, seven years later, what originally raised eyebrows is all but accepted as the norm.
Think for a moment: If you were asked to summarize the Clinton criteria for deciding when we should become involved in a foreign conflict, what would you answer? What could you answer? In Seattle this month we had the latest example of this kind of Clintonspeak. In order to appease the demonstrators and please the delegates at the WTO meeting, the president smothered the important issues at stake in wholly pointless rhetoric.
Congress is no better. Rather than take the president on with substantive policies, they have promoted equally vacuous ideas in a low-risk rush to beat him to the perceived political center. But what a costly kind of success they have achieved, a success bought by degenerating the very basis of our politics.
Throughout most of our history we could rely on party caucuses in the House and Senate to conceive and espouse defensible policy ideas. Consequently, party leaders could legitimately lay claim to the kind of disciplined followership that was essential to any hope of carrying their position.
This tradition survived until very recently in men and women of probity, patriotism and intellect such as Sens. Richard Russell, "Scoop" Jackson, Robert Taft and their contemporary heirs, Richard Lugar, Joe Lieberman and Bob Kerrey.Today, however, such senators are lonely giants in a world of congressional pygmies.
There is no vision in either party's congressional leadership. As a result, these uncertain trumpets are largely ignored and little followed. When someone has the guts to step into this void--especially in order to espouse ideas that command solid majorities among Americans of both parties--we ought to welcome such leadership instead of seeking to undermine it.
Such is the case now with McCain. The "soft money" that fills candidate coffers, and thereby influences the votes of virtually all members of Congress, is making a mockery of democratic governance. All current polls show that solid majorities of Americans are outraged over this blatant corruption of our processes. And yet the leadership of both parties has carefully subverted McCain's efforts to get campaign finance reform legislation enacted.
Similarly, solid majorities of Americans want to see our government focus on the public health issue posed by cigarettes. But is the congressional "leadership" willing to push for enactment of improved regulation of this trade? Clearly not. It took a "maverick" like McCain to take the people's side and make the people's case on this important issue.
In the process of leading efforts for reform, McCain has occasionally managed to engender a white-knuckle rage among many of his colleagues. Some of them are now apparently seeking revenge by providing the press with off-the-record hints and scarcely veiled slurs about this maverick senator supposedly unworthy of the highest leadership post--the presidency. The fact is that this pitiful cabal of self-absorbed and self-perpetuating lightweights has abrogated its responsibilities. Thank God someone has had the guts to take them on.
Nature and John McCain abhor vacuums. We should too.