McCain’s Tortured Position

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Commenters may remember that we spent some time in the threads a couple of months ago discussing McCain’s vote against the Dem’s Field Manual legislation. Critics may seize upon this early draft of McCain’s own legislation that Michael mentions as proof of further hypocrisy; as I said in the threads, to McCain, it’s not hypocrisy, it was a deal he had to make to get the legislation passed. And he believes that legislation outlawed torture.

But what drives critics crazy isn’t whether or not McCain believes torture has been outlawed, or, to a lesser extent, whether or not the DTA/MCA were honest attempts to outlaw torture: What drives them crazy is that they believe the Bush administration keeps torturing people.

McCain’s aides say that, of course, McCain is disturbed by any reports of continued torture, and that, of course, he’ll take steps to investigate/litigate these practices. In effect, he’s arguing, “I’ve done my part, I passed the law, now we just need to enforce it.” And his aides say that McCain would move to prosecute acts of torture with gusto. This is difficult to argue with. But he’s dodging the question of whether or not he could have — or should have — done more in the first place.

McCain staffers point out that stronger legislation would have little chance of becoming law; and, hey, the Bushies would just keep torturing, anyway. One adviser told me, not entirely joking, that, really, the only way to ensure that the U.S. never practice torture again “is to elect John McCain president.” (One presumes that an Obama administration would also take a hard line against it.)

McCain’s belief that he’s done his part raises the specter of — as George Will put it — his “towering moral vanity,” a phrase his staffers visibly rankle at. And it’s a bit strong… but it’s an artful phrase to describe how, for McCain, the most important standards are, well, McCain’s. His unwillingness to reexamine the criterion itself, once he feels he’s met it, shows up when he’s challenged on campaign reform, when he’s asked about lobbyists on his campaign, when he has to defend getting Sunni and Shia mixed up… pretty much any time he’s passed the muster of his own self-scrutiny, but fallen short in the estimation of others.

To be sure, McCain’s self-scrutiny is withering. (And the estimation of others can be wrong.) If McCain is not always his own worst critic, he is still a vicious and constant one. The level of achievement, honesty and duty to his country that he sets for himself is incredibly high — higher than most people’s, perhaps even “towering.” And I am sympathetic to his aides’ point that he shouldn’t be punished every time his actions meet “normal” standards but fail his own. (This is the obverse of Clinton’s claim that since she didn’t promise to, for instance, conduct a clean campaign, you can’t blame her if she plays dirty.) The problem lies not in the standards themselves, but in his certainty about them, a conviction that may sometimes blind him to even the question of whether he has, even by accident or mistake, blurred them in order to meet them.