Sunday, July 01, 2007

Who was that masked man anyway?

The Lone Reformer, that is.

A few months ago Reihan Salam formulated the idea of upper-middle (and lower-middle) reformism, something that was originally
opaque for me. Now, I think I get his point a little better, but in substantial ways I just don't buy it. First, let's restrict ourselves to the GOP side for a moment, and consider this:

Why do Senators like Hagel, McCain, and Graham tend to end up on the same side of issues that seemingly don't have anything to do with each other, and that inevitably put them at odds with the prevailing thoughts of their party. I can think of at least four fairly prominent examples of this offhand: campaign finance reform, torture (us torturing the terrorists, that is), the judicial nomination filibuster deal, and immigration.

Reihan and Ross are correct to suppose that all of these things are related to each other, but I disagree with them to extent that it has anything to do with reform. They are just opinions which are largely shared by the members of the media, so they presented to the public in the most favorable light possible. But even after that, the public is still indifferent, or in the case of immigration reform, hostile.

They are closer when they claim that these "reforms" are intended to appeal to the upper-middle class. To borrow some medieval terms, it is true that these issues are intended to appeal to the squires and gentry against the base impulses of the serfs. But even that is more hope than reality: how many real estate developers, tax attorneys, or investment bankers really care about the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or the senatorial privilege to filibuster a judge? And in the case of campaign finance reform this theory is even less persuasive, because these are exactly the sorts of people whose influence was supposed to be taken down a notch or two by curtailing their ability to control the money flow into the political arena.

No, the primary driving force behind upper-middle reformism is the psychological profile of the Senators themselves. In particular, these Senators reject the idea of accountability to their constituents, and more importantly, to the Republican base. This is clearest in the case of McCain, but the motivation is substantially the same in several others as well (though probably not quite as strong), so let's recap.

Senator McCain is held prisoner by the North Vietnamese for several years, then returns to the US and gets elected Senator. He meets people like a nurse from Flagstaff, and he is a little surprised to learn that she has a list of positions he is expected to hold and is perfectly capable of granting or witholding her support depending on them. Then he gets in trouble for his association with the Keating Five (though he was regarded as the least culpable of the bunch), because he needed money to air television commercials, essentially for the sake of appeasing the likes of this nurse.

Enough is enough, he thinks, who is she to tell me what to do? This is especially topical in the case of McCain, because he regards (probably with some justification) that it is his sense of honor and ability to do the right thing even when it hurts is what allowed him to survive the Hanoi Hilton.

In the end it is a mistake, of course, to suppose that accountability to the body politic is a corruption instead of a duty. Mark Steyn once wrote of the McCain campaign that he hadn't seen more contempt for the common man since Pierre Trudeau. Well, that's why.

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