John McCain’s Greatest Teaching Moment
A one-minute moment on the 2008 campaign trail can teach all of us in politics a valuable lesson.
With a new book, a new documentary, and an existing battle with brain cancer, John McCain is taking a lot of time to look back on his legacy. Those of us who have admired or followed McCain are lucky to be along for the ride.
McCain — a war hero (despite what some may tell you) and a political legend — can certainly teach a great deal to those of us who practice or preach politics.
I’ve spent some time lately thinking of my favorite McCain teaching moment. Others may pick different events on McCain’s timeline. Some friends on the left may be fond of McCain’s ‘thumbs down’ to Obamacare repeal last year.
The McCain moment that can serve us political (swamp?) creatures best in 2018, though, came ten years ago. It was one minute on a two-year, marathon presidential campaign. But it’s still put on replay when discussing McCain’s legacy today.
Now, a reasonable response to the above video would go like this:
It shouldn’t be difficult, or courageous, to shut up someone peddling a racist conspiracy theory about a U.S. senator running for president. McCain did the common-sense thing. Anything less would have been troubling and unethical.
There’s some truth in this hypothetical response: questions about Obama’s birthplace or religion were rooted in racism, and had no place in American politics. It was common sense to push back.
Was it easy for McCain? It should have been. But American politics were not easy then, and they’re less easy now. Consider:
- Some Obama opponents peddled the birthplace and religion conspiracies throughout the 2008 campaign.
- A surprising number of Republicans believe the falsehood to this day, meaning dissent — the honorable thing to do — came with political risks (and apparently still does).
- The man who gave the ‘birther’ conspiracy new life in 2012 now occupies the Oval Office.
So what does McCain’s ‘mic grab’ moment do for those of us in politics at a time like this? Hopefully, it reminds us to run campaigns that make the best case for our candidates, and against theirs, without debasing the humanity of our opponents.
Of course, McCain made a vigorous case against Obama on the ’08 trail. Why would he not? They were opponents. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in three years of opposition research, it’s the importance of defining your opponent.
But candidates can make the case against their opponents without assuming their opponent is a bad person.
How? In 2008, John McCain provided a blueprint:
“No ma’am,” McCain said. “[Obama’s] a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
“He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as President,” McCain said. “If I didn’t think I’d be one heck of a better President I wouldn’t be running, and that’s the point. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are. Because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.”
There have been, are, and will be good and bad people in American politics. When public evidence tells us someone’s a bad person, there’s a responsibility for those in politics to make the case against them (that’s where oppo can come in).
But when calling someone a bad person becomes an election crutch, we’re harming the democratic process. John McCain offered a better way 10 years ago. We’d do well to follow his example, and his legacy.