Wow. John McCain has had his tantrums before, but rarely has one revealed how intertwined his personal feelings and the Republican Party’s political tactics have become.
During Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings for defense secretary, McCain went Captain Queeg on his former BFF and fellow Vietnam vet for daring to question the wisdom of the surge in Iraq, which just happened to be the centerpiece of McCain’s argument that he’d make a better president than Barack Obama in 2008. McCain expressed shock that anyone anywhere could possibly fail to grasp what everyone knows—that the surge “worked” and the war needed to be won.
The tactic was to preemptively limit Hagel’s testimony to a single tree, so the forest could stay camouflaged. But McCain’s barely suppressed note of senior-officer outrage made Thursday’s exchange into a continual rerun right through the Sunday morning talk shows:
McCAIN: I want to know if you are right or wrong. That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer.
HAGEL: The surge assisted in the objective. But—but, if we review the record a little bit…
McCAIN: Will you please answer the question—were you correct or incorrect when he said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect? Yes or no?
HAGEL: My reference to the surge being…
McCAIN: Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel? The question is, were you right or wrong? That’s a straightforward question. I would like to answer whether you are right or wrong and then you are free to elaborate.
HAGEL: Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer.
McCAIN: Well, let the record show he refuses to answer the question. Now please go ahead.
HAGEL: Well, if you would like me to explain…
McCAIN: No, I actually would like an answer, yes or no.
HAGEL: Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no on a lot of things today…. As to the comment I made about the most dangerous foreign policy decision since Vietnam, that was about not just the surge, but the overall war of choice going into Iraq.
McCain doesn’t want to hear about the “overall war,” of course, much less if it was one of choice or necessity. He wants to put Hagel in the position of sounding unpatriotic, or at least out of the can-do military mainstream, for refusing to salute a command decision. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to do that.
But at the same time, McCain is burning with personal frustration because Hagel was disloyal—to John McCain. Although Hagel was one of McCain’s most stalwart supporters against George W. Bush in 2000, he refused to endorse McCain in 2008 because of their differences over the Iraq war; Hagel’s wife quite publicly endorsed Obama. Because he lost to Obama, the Maverick is never going to rise higher than senator from Arizona, but here was another Republican senator, one elected a full ten years after McCain joined the club, moving up to head the most powerful military force the world has ever known. If McCain’s hysteria winds up leaving his legacy as small as his grudges, well, so be it.
But beneath McCain’s anger was a brittle and increasingly common form of argument. As Andrew Sullivan put it:
What’s striking to me is not McCain’s fury or douchiness (what’s new?)—but his complete assumption that he couldn’t possibly be wrong, his insistence that this debate is already over, and his refusal to allow for the notion that this question may only eventually be resolved by a more distant historical judgment.
This tightly sealed close-mindedness is a tactic rightwing pols and pundits seem to be deploying more frequently lately as their actual policies—on taxes, guns, women’s rights, gay rights, immigration—are rejected by the public.
In fact, right now we have a glaring parallel to the neocon hawks like McCain: austerity hawks who insist that it’s absolutely urgent that we attack
Iraq to get rid of WMD entitlements to get rid of the deficit.
And in both cases, the media, ever fearful of diverging from the conventional wisdom, has feathered the hawks’ nests.
Joe Scarborough’s screed for Politico last week, called “Paul Krugman vs. the world,” is a good example. Scarborough tried to paint Krugman as the only economist on the planet who advocates focusing on jobs and growing the economy rather than cutting the deficit (though he couldn’t help letting a note of personal resentment creep in, writing that Krugman’s “worldview runs counter to almost all mainstream economists and he got a Nobel Prize for his efforts”). Actually, as Joe Weisenthal shows, there’s no dearth of mainstream economists—conservatives, liberals and Wall Streeters among them—who agree with Krugman. But Scarborough’s (and his Morning Joe crew’s) insistence that everyone knows cutting the deficit should be our chief priority is a way of quashing dissent by invoking an imaginary overwhelming majority. The sneer about the Swedes is supposed to rally red-blooded patriots against the surrender monkeys in Europe.
Whatever you call the process that conjures make-believe consensus—group think, an echo chamber, Bill Maher’s inside-the-bubble, or Greg Sargent’s Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop—it is powerfully seductive, and it exists across policy debates. Krugman writes:
Back during the early days of the Iraq debacle, I learned that the military has a term for how highly dubious ideas become not just accepted, but viewed as certainties. “Incestuous amplification” happens when a closed group of people repeat the same things to each other—and when accepting the group’s preconceptions itself becomes a necessary ticket to being in the in-group.
It’s as old as high school, and it’s a kind of bullying. But it’s also aimed at quelling the least bit of doubt in the bully’s own mind, a way of squeezing out negative thoughts that threaten his in-group status.
And that’s why it can be so infuriating when someone questions the assumptions of the official line. About three weeks ago, Scarborough had his own McCainian meltdown as he tried to drive home the putative chauvinism of President Obama revealed by a White House photo showing an all-male Oval Office crew (except for a glimpse of Valerie Jarrett’s leg). For about a week there, Republicans offered the photo as dispositive proof that Democrats hate women, too. When Mika Brzezinski and Katty Kay pooh-poohed Scarborough’s charge of sexism, he began to lose it, snarking audibly while Kay tried to speak. Brzezinski, accurately enough, told him he was “being chauvinistic.”
“You’re calling the wrong guy a chauvinist,” Joe burst out. “You’re calling the wrong guy a chauv—. And seriously, hold on”—he actually snapped his fingers, three times, at Brzezinski—“Do you want to call me a chauvinist?…. Am I a chauvinist? Am I chauvinist? Let’s just settle that question RIGHT NOW!”
Scarborough later apologized, saying he’d been “in a dark place,” and vowed to interrupt Mika “less.” Scarborough, who’s evolved on issues like guns, climate change and the wars, is more flexible than McCain. But it’s true, right now, McCain, Scarborough and their party are in a dark place and it’s hard to keep your temper when people simply refuse to fall in line. Everyone knows that.
Another case of conservative groupthink has been the delusion that Barack Obama is waging a "War on the GOP."