Very few politicians can plausibly make any sort of a valid claim to be being an American hero. But John McCain is an American hero three times over. Ironically, though, his most relevant act of heroism for purposes of his presidential bid may be the least likely of the three to help him.
McCain became an American hero based on his enormously courageous and honorable conduct as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Only wacky leftists dispute that this makes him a hero, and McCain’s heroism during these years is an important factor in his political popularity. However, I agree with his critics to the extent they argue that this heroism is not really a strong qualification for the presidency.
McCain arguably is also a hero (in a lesser sense) because of willingness to buck his party and reach out to Democrats to write and enact legislation he believed was in the national interest. Many conservatives probably don’t regard this as heroic, but I do because in each instance McCain displayed political courage in the name of doing what he considered right. Indeed, but for his maverick tendencies McCain might well have been his party’s presidential nominee in 2000, and certainly would have had an easier path to the nomination this year.
Now that he is going to be the nominee, McCain’s maverick heroism works in his favor, I believe, because it helps make him attractive to independents and centrists in a year when Republicans face serious problems with these voters. (Although the conservative base distrusts McCain because of his maverick tendencies, I’m confident that most of these voters can be won over). However, being a maverick is not a qualification for the presidency. It’s the validity of McCain’s excursions to the liberal side (negligible in my view), not the courage displayed in taking them, that should matter.
McCain’s third act of heroism was his willingness to go out on the limb in favor of a new strategy in Iraq. McCain was an early and persistent critic of the adminstration’s strategy at a time when most of the party faithful were still behind it. Then, as the difficulty of the U.S. position in Iraq became indisputable, McCain backed sending in more troops (and changing strategy in other respects too) at a time when the public seemed to be demanding troop reductions. The administation followed the against-the-grain approach McCain advocated, and that approach (contrary to the expectations of most) has helped turn the tide decisively in our favor.
Figuring out how to win a war we weren’t winning, and having the courage of that conviction, is a sign not just of heroism but of greatness. And it’s relevant, to say the least, to one’s fitness for the presidency.
Yet it remains to be seen whether this heroic contribution will be a plus for McCain in the election. McCain’s willingness to speak out against strategies that weren’t working will probably enable him to avoid the stigma still associated with the war and certainly with the way it was conducted. But even as the situation improves in Iraq, the war may remain too unpleasant and unpopular for McCain to receive much credit, at least from swing voters, for his heroic role. We’ll see.
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