In Politico, Darren Samuelsohn says “greens want their McCain back.” I don’t know if I qualify as a “green,” but I can say with great vigor and certainty that I do not want my McCain back, or anyone’s McCain for that matter. It’s not clear how many greens are supposed to feel this way beyond Republicans for Environmental Protection (the only entity more desperate for a conservative date to the dance than John Kerry), but for those that do, listen carefully: He’s just not that into you.
The one fact about McCain that makes sense of all the others is that he’s got an enormous and incredibly fragile ego. He is the prototypical child of a heroic, distant, disapproving father (an alcoholic, no less), young life spent acting out, adult life spent desperately trying to win the old man’s approval, even after he’s dead and gone. McCain needs attention and affirmation. He needs to be seen as a man of significance and independence, worthy of his legacy. He needs it so badly he pursues it with twitchy anxiety, covered in flop sweat. Rare is the politician whose self-mythologizing is so unabashed. He even had a staffer devoted to it.
It’s the need for approbation more than any set of principles that explains McCain’s career. It’s why, for all his purported grit, he bails at the first sign of danger.
There was a time in McCain’s career when ostentatious apostasy on the subject of climate change worked for his self-image. He was showered with love by Democrats and the media. There was no chance the climate bills his staff wrote would pass. It was satisfying melodrama with little consequence. When Democrats started being mean to him during the 2008 election, he backpedaled from climate without a second look. When a bill with a chance of passing was introduced in Congress, he stood foursquare with his party against it, repeating their mindless smears against a policy he’d supported just a few years prior. The minute there was a threat to his political life, what remained of his climate conviction vanished with a poof.
The bizarre thing is that even his supporters seem matter-of-fact about all this:
“There’s something to be said for making sure he lived for another day,” said David Jenkins, government affairs director at Republicans for Environmental Protection.
Multiple sources said McCain reassured them in private that he still believed in the climate issue. But he said he wouldn’t be at the front of the pack if Obama didn’t take the lead himself. And that meant staying on the sidelines even as two of his closest Senate friends, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), struggled to find consensus.
“If Obama had been serious about this bill, the thing to do would have been to approach McCain and say, ‘We want to honor you on this,’” said an environmentalist in the middle of the climate debate. “But the notion John McCain was going to turn out in traffic with John Kerry and Lindsey Graham? Of course he’d say no to that. Anyone would say no to that.”
Everyone acknowledges that McCain is supportive on climate only insofar as it is easy for him. He doesn’t act on it when it’s hard, or he gets a primary opponent, or public opinion gets shaky, or the president doesn’t come and “honor” him personally. Some greens are nonetheless desperate to see climate commitment beneath the opportunism:
… Manik Roy, vice president of federal government outreach at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said he still is holding stock in McCain’s return to climate change because the senator didn’t join other GOP candidates in attacking the science of global warming.
“That, in this election season, actually makes him a little unusual,” Roy said. “It speaks to his continuing convictions on this issue.”
Yes, he stood by passively in the face of anti-scientific demagoguery, but he didn’t join in. He must really get it. (Is there an institution better at lowering the bar for conservatives than Pew?)
Regardless, I think greens are destined for disappointment. This is the first and likely only time I’ll ever agree with Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute:
“Now that Sen. McCain has won the primary election by pretending to be a solid conservative, I expect he will return to type and find a fashionable liberal cause or two to promote and thereby gain the approbation of the establishment and particularly of the mainstream media,” Ebell said. “However, I doubt that one of those causes will be global warming. That’s because cap and trade has passed its sell-by date. Energy-rationing policies are dead for the next Congress. Sen. McCain will pick something that’s trendy rather than beating a dead horse.”
That’s about right. The shiny penny of climate change isn’t shiny any more and McCain won’t pick it back up. The stakes are too high; it’s too risky. It requires too much courage and too little misty romanticism.
Climate is probably dead in the Senate for at least four years. If anything happens to change that, it will be something urgent and sweeping, something that will fundamentally alter the political calculus. Whatever the result, McCain won’t be what he palpably wants to be, the essential man in the middle. Without that it holds little interest for him. Which is fine by me. Like most greens I know, I’m sick of the guy.