John McCain scuffed up Barack Obama a little last night, but he did devastating damage to his own reputation as a maverick politician. Over ninety minutes, in the middle of two wars and a huge financial crisis, his stock prescription was cut taxes, don't trust the government, and rein in abortion rights. If there is a more succinct summary of orthodox Republican opinion, I'm not aware of it.
The wonder, actually, is how McCain got the maverick reputation in the first place. It is true that he has staked out some positions at odds with his own Republican Party, but the bright light cast on these issues leaves the conventional conservatism of the rest of his record in the dark. Last night, he dragged it out for all to see.
I thought McCain's best moment of the night was when he told Obama that if he wanted to run against George Bush, he should have run in 2004. But this was a strong line only in the theatrical, rhetorical sense that we have come to prize so highly in televised debates. It said very little about how McCain would govern, and it dodged the fundamental fact that McCain has embraced the movement conservatives and religious conservatives who are the hard base of the GOP. It also evaded the fact that McCain did move closer to Bush in recent years, even if he has avoided joint public appearances since the convention in order to escape being directly linked to a hugely unpopular president.
McCain threw everything he had at Obama last night. He set the tone for the first half of the debate, but I thought Obama came back well in the second half. In the battle of appearances, McCain came off as cranky and crusty, Obama as calm and unruffled. My sense is that in the current economic crisis, people will prefer Obama's style.
For me, the most troubling thing about McCain was his adherence to the idea that the government is bad and the market is good. In his more exalted moments, McCain likes to make you think that he will follow in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt--a Republican president who understood the need for a federal government that could restrain the wild engines of capitalism.
In the end, though, McCain shows that he's just another sunbelt conservative--a man with many of Barry Goldwater's vices, but few of his virtues. In these times, with our economy in desperate shape and real questions in the air about what government can and should do, Americans want a choice--not an echo that sounds like Republican formulas from a discredited past.