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Back in the day, major newspapers selected a few provocateurs to publish on their editorial pages, supposedly from all points on the spectrum. It was never as balanced as they claimed. William Safire was less a conservative than he was what the New York Times thought a conservative was.
George Will, the kid with the hipster glasses, was sent straight from Oxford through central casting (i.e., National Review) to the Washington Post. It was not yet possible for anyone with a laptop to build a life based on incitements conveyed by electrons. By vocation, though, Will was just Ben Shapiro, only with a monopoly.
Every once in a while, as the house conservative, Will had to assume his role as a right-wing minstrel and say something really mean. He famously wrote in the wake of Hurricane Katrina about “molten passions that must be checked by force when they cannot be tamed by socialization.”
Otherwise, Will’s Burkean musings existed within the boundaries set by Washington, a form of censorship that took the name “civility.” He could say whatever he wanted so long as his dangerous ideas never got enacted into actual policy.
That only made it better for Will, because baseball metaphors are all about exquisite futility. Even the Bambino failed seven out of ten times, cue the organ music.
There developed among Republican intellectuals a romanticizing of failure. I’m picking on Will, but it was all of them, the Republican pundits and think-tankers who knew it was their job, in the end, to lose—the NeverTrumpers. They preferred striking a dramatic pose while dying on a hill to taking it.
Thankfully, that world was finally buried last week in a blaze of splendor never to be seen again.
John McCain was a war hero. Politically, though, he was a one-trick-pony. When he frustrated his party’s policy initiatives upon a claim of principle, he was hailed as a maverick by the same cultural forces that paid George Will to be insipid.
Adorably, he believed it. So much so that he ran for president as a maverick on the Republican Party’s platform that asserted the very policy initiatives it was his job to scuttle. For that, they called him a racist, to his utter surprise since he was more accustomed to fawning and flattery from the press.
He doubled down on the maverick act, selecting Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. She had risen from the PTA to the governorship of Alaska through sheer will and innate political skill. She had been the subject of a lauding Newsweek cover story in 2007.
She made a rousing speech at the Republican National Convention four days after her selection. To understand how difficult it is to be rushed from an obscure state house to the national stage without first playing the Borscht Belt circuit, recall Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1988, where he was practically booed off the stage.
McCain got a 10-point bump in the polls as a result.
Then he suspended his campaign, turned on his running mate, and lost. That is the short version. The long version is that there was a financial crisis of very specific etiology.
In September 2008, the major houses on Wall Street were failing, and President George W. Bush embarked on the largest government program ever to bail them out. It smacked of socialism, a very nice word for it, because not even a French intellectual could have thought this one up.
The federal government had secured high risk mortgages, betting (against every imaginable actuarial table) that they would not default. The markets, run as they are by capitalists, then created financial products that hedged against the federal government’s assumption of risk, because that is what rational actors who want to make money do.
When all the new home buyers created a false inflation in housing prices, confirming temporarily the brilliance of Wall Street’s hedge, they rewarded themselves with $50 million per year salaries, as that was the going rate for such economic brilliance. When the whole thing collapsed, they then turned to President Bush for a bailout.
It was a crisis ready-made for a maverick. Turn on Bush and Wall Street and failed government policies and say to the people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia and Wisconsin that they should not pay a cent to bail out bankers. Those voters wanted to like McCain anyway because of his war record.
But, no! The “Maverick” fully supported the bailout, grumbling only that Andrew Cuomo should be put in charge to make it bipartisan. That was the moment the deplorables started to feel ripped off. It was suddenly obvious that establishment conservatives and liberals found common ground in smarmy paternalism when their placid, insulated, wealthy world was threatened.
The lesson of 2008 was that Washington’s greatest fear is the encroachment of the rabble and they would use the rabble’s money to maintain their place in the gated club. When George Will spoke of “molten passions that must be checked by force when they cannot be tamed by socialization” he was talking about, well, us. He has confirmed that recently by describing Trump’s conservatism as, “soiled by scowling primitives whose irritable gestures lack mental ingredients.”
For the Washington establishment, McCain was always a reliable tool used to keep the scowling primitives behind the barricades. With his death, though, their era of Republicans who intentionally lose in the name of civility and bipartisanship came to an end. It is Trump’s party now.
The maverick is dead, long live the maverick.
Photo Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images