The Washington Post Column

Why McCain Lost Me

Yesterday, while reading the latest polling data on John McCain, Sarah Palin and their appeal — or growing lack of it — to ” independent women voters” it suddenly dawned on me: I am one of these elusive independent female voters, and I have the credentials to prove it. For the past couple of decades, I’ve sometimes voted Democratic, sometimes Republican. I’m even a registered independent, though I did think of switching to vote for John McCain in 2000. But because the last political party I truly felt comfortable with was Thatcher’s Conservative Party (I lived in England in the 1980s and 1990s), I didn’t actually do it.

The larger point, though, is that if I’m not voting for McCain — and, after a long struggle, I’ve realized that I can’t — maybe it’s worth explaining why, for I suspect there are other independent voters who feel the same. Particularly because it’s not his campaign, disjointed though that has been, that finally repulses me: It’s his rapidly deteriorating, increasingly anti-intellectual, no longer even recognizably conservative Republican Party. His problems are not technical; they do not have to do with ads, fundraising or tactics, as some have suggested. They are institutional; they have to do with his colleagues, advisers and supporters.

I should say here that I know McCain, slightly: He spoke at a party given for a book I wrote a few years ago, though I think that was as much about the subject (communist prison camps) as the author. But it’s not his personality I admire most. Far more important is his knowledge of foreign affairs, an understanding that goes well beyond an ability to name the Pakistani president. McCain knows not only the names, he knows the people; and by this I mean not just foreign presidents but foreign members of parliament, foreign journalists, foreign generals. He goes to Germany every year, visits Vietnam often. He can talk intelligently about Belarus and Uzbekistan; I’ve heard him do it. Let’s just say that’s one of the things that distinguish him from our current president, who once confessed that “this foreign policy stuff is a little frustrating.”

Another thing I liked about McCain was the deliberate distance he always kept from the nuttier wing of his party and, simultaneously, the loyalty he’s shown to a recognizably conservative budgetary philosophy. Fiscal conservatism, balanced budgets, sober spending — all of these principles have been brushed away as so much nonsense for the past eight years by Republicans more interested in grandstanding about how much they hate Washington. McCain was one of the few who kept talking about them. He was also one of a shockingly few to understand that there is nothing American, let alone conservative, about torture, and that a battle for civilized values could not be won by uncivilized means.

Finally, I admired McCain’s willingness to tackle politically risky issues such as immigration, the debate about which has long been drenched in hypocrisy. Those who want to ban it are illogically denying both the role that immigrants, especially the millions of illegal immigrants, already play in the U.S. economy as well as the improbability of forced deportations; those who want to allow it without restriction don’t acknowledge the security risks. McCain tried to put together a bipartisan coalition in an effort to find a rational solution. He failed — blocked by the ideologues in his party.

If these traits appealed to me, they probably would have appealed to other independents, too. Why, then, has McCain spent the past four months running away from them? The appointment of Palin — inspired by his closest colleagues — turned out not to be a “maverick” move but, rather, a concession to those Republicans who think foreign policy can be conducted using a series of cliches and those in his party who shout down the federal government while quietly raking in federal subsidies. Although McCain has one of the best records for bipartisanship in the Senate, he’s let his campaign appeal to his party’s extremes. Though he is a true foreign policy intellectual, his supporters cultivate ignorance and fear: Watch Sean Hannity’s ” Barack Obama and Friends: A History of Radicalism” on YouTube if you don’t believe me. Worse, McCain has — in a fatal effort to appeal to the least thoughtful, most partisan elements of his base — moved away from his previous positions on torture and immigration. Maybe that’s all tactics, and maybe the “real” McCain will ditch the awful ideologues after Nov. 4, if by some miracle he happens to win. But how can I know that will happen?

Here’s what I do know: I would give anything to rewrite history and make McCain president in 2000. But in 2008, I don’t think I can vote for him. Barack Obama is indeed the least experienced, least tested candidate in modern presidential history. But at least if he wins, I can be sure that the mobs who cry “terrorist” at the sound of Obama’s name will be kept far, far away from the White House.