The McCain mutiny

A fallen Republican works a strategy to stop Boy George.

LET ME FESS UP right here: I love the quadrennial Super Bowl that is presidential politics. I love watching it and, unlike the real Super Bowl, participating in it. As a true political independent, I have been everything from a George McGovern delegate to the King County convention to a Republican precinct committeeman, swept into office by the Reagan landslide and a name—"Knute"—that is to Ballard what "Kennedy" is to Boston. I have worked Democrat phone banks, doorbelled for third-party candidates, attended GOP caucuses, and shaken hands with Tricky Dick Nixon. My mother tells me one of my first sentences was, "I yike Ike."

Each season I have a game plan, and this year Stage One is simple: Do whatever it takes to stop George W. Bush, short of licking doorknobs. Bush is like the Dallas Cowboys, a team I can never root for. The Cowboys see themselves as "America's team," the team of manifest destiny, the richest and most righteous patriotic pricks around. Boy George is like that too: an arrogant Texas good ol' frat boy with the smirk to match. I feel about him the way die-hard Clinton haters feel about Slick Willy. His mindless chatter about "compassionate conservatism" makes me want to puke, especially as he defines it. He recently told a crowd that what he meant by the term was that the results of conservatism were "compassionate," which does more to redefine "compassion" than Clinton did to redefine "is." Compassionate conservatism is a cruelly dishonest concept, a cover for the trickle-down "voodoo" that even Bush's father sniffed out, before embracing it. The only thing that ever "trickled down" to George W. was the money his buddies got him for his share of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise.

Now, I don't think there's any point to going to the game if you don't put your money down. Pay to play. I've already sent small donations to Al Gore and John McCain (pre-New Hampshire, by the way). Now that Ralph Nader has finally declared, he'll get a few fins: a thank-you for his role in Seattle's November 30th madness.

I gave to Al because I want to help him beat Bill Bradley, a candidate who embodies the sanctimonious civility that is the Democratic party at its worst. To me, he's Adlai Stevenson with a glandular condition, the kind of politician who thinks the nomination should be given to him because he's morally superior to the other guy.

So, why McCain? He's an interesting phenomenon and the only chance to knock Bush out early. Plus I have this impulse to want to save the GOP from itself. I grew up Republican, the only kid in South Seattle to wear a Goldwater button (OK, there was one other kid, but he was shaving in the fifth grade). My mother comes from Ripon, Wisconsin, birthplace of the Republican Party. My great-grandparents' old house is now called the Republican House and is a traditional gathering place for local party members. In its front yard sits the little white schoolhouse where the GOP was born before the Civil War. The party of my forbears was a progressive party—which is why that enclave of liberal Republicans, the Ripon Society, is named that. It is also why the Ripon Society is essentially dead.

Over the years, the GOP has swung so far to the right that George W. can keep a straight face when he calls John McCain a liberal. Republican liberals used to be government-friendly blue bloods from the East, like Nelson Rockefeller, or Western environmentalists like Washington's Dan Evans or Oregon's Tom McCall. And here in Washington, the GOP was often the party of reform, breaking up the Democratic stranglehold on political patronage in the 19th century or cleaning up Seattle police corruption in the late 1960s.

So I hear a siren song when a John McCain comes along with a message that's vaguely populist and reformist. I want to know that the GOP, at its highest levels, can have room for politicians who aren't completely sold out to Wall Street and religious interests. A "liberal" in the GOP these days isn't a Rockefeller or even a Nixon (who, after all, wanted every American to have a guaranteed annual income. Remember that? If Gore suggested that, he'd be called a communist!). It can be one idiosyncratic man who defies labels and conventions, and who demonstrates—if only by the minutest percentage point—that he thinks for himself once in a while. McCain considers himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, which is code for a conservative who's something of an independent thinker, a guy who loves the outdoors enough not to go along with every scheme to rape it, a guy who distrusts authority and relishes being a war hero, though McCain has more to be proud of than TR's lousy charge up San Juan Hill.

Being a Roosevelt Republican in this day and age doesn't mean a whole lot, except it seems to suggest someone more real than Boy George, someone whose appeal extends bizarrely from Gary Bauer on the far right to Dan Evans on the left. They both endorsed McCain on the same day last week, Evans switching his allegiance to McCain from Bush in part because he likes the fact that his candidacy can "reinvigorate" the country. Bully.

Washington state's current primary system is ridiculous, but it invites people like me to play Republican for a day. On February 29, I can claim my Republican ballot with a clear conscience as a fallen Republican and cast a vote for the man who, if he can't entirely be my friend, can at least help me defeat my enemy. If enough Democrats and independents and fellow fallen Republicans do the same, maybe we can help the party—not because we'll ever be at home there, but when we get to the finals in November, the choice of the lesser of evils will be a little less evil than usual.

 
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