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The Maverick Myth
The American Prospect ^ | February 12, 2008 | Paul Waldman

Posted on 02/14/2008 8:49:07 AM PST by forkinsocket

You can't read a story about John McCain without seeing the word "maverick." But is it true?

Now that John McCain is the all-but-certain Republican nominee for president, there is one thing we know for sure about how the general election will play out: The Democrat is going to be at a serious disadvantage in the media. This will be true even if that nominee is Barack Obama, who has gotten better coverage thus far than Hillary Clinton. Reporters find his candidacy a compelling story, but that attraction has its limitations. When it comes to John McCain, however, it's pure love.

The issue of the media's affection for McCain is a complex one that I'll be exploring in detail over the coming months. But for the moment, let's take a look at perhaps the most prominent and repeated element of the mythology surrounding the Arizona senator.

If you asked 100 reporters what one word they would use to describe John McCain, 99 would probably answer, "maverick." Indeed, they've become so used to attaching "maverick" to McCain that it has become almost a part of his name; "the maverick John McCain" is used in the same way we refer to "Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega" or "teen sensation Hannah Montana." A Lexis-Nexis search reveals that in the month of January alone, McCain was referred to in the media as a "maverick" more than 800 times. Pick up today's newspaper or turn on cable news, and you won't have to wait long before a reporter or pundit calls McCain a maverick.

But is John McCain really a maverick? A look beyond the media's repetition of the word at McCain's actual record suggests that the answer is no. In fact, McCain is a reliable conservative, and if not a perfectly loyal Republican, at least a reasonably loyal one.

According to Congressional Quarterly's party unity scores, which track how often members of Congress side with their party on key votes, over the course of his career McCain has voted with his party 84 percent of the time—not the highest score in the Senate but hardly evidence of a great deal of independence. Similarly, the American Conservative Union gives McCain a lifetime rating of 82.3, making him a solid friend of the right's. And according to the widely respected Poole-Rosenthal rankings, McCain was the eighth-most conservative senator in the 110th Senate.

This may come as a surprise to some. After all, few reports about McCain will fail to mention his fights with members of his own party, leaving the impression that he isn't much of a Republican at all. McCain does vote with the Democrats on rare occasions, but the fact is that virtually every member of Congress breaks with his or her party now and then. So why are McCain's disagreements given so much more attention?

Journalists who attach the label "maverick" to McCain might say that it isn't the quantity of McCain's breaks with the GOP that matters, but the quality. He championed campaign finance reform and supported FDA regulation of tobacco. He sponsored a bill to address climate change. In other words, while others in the Senate break with their party far more often than McCain, his acts of apostasy are "high profile." Indeed they are, but we should be careful not to confuse cause with effect. McCain's breaks with the GOP are "high profile" precisely because the press is so eager to paint him as a maverick and rewrite a story with which they are well familiar.

Here's how it usually works. Imagine that the Democrats and Republicans have a conflict over a piece of legislation, and on both sides, party unity is fairly strong. Only a couple of senators—let's say Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine, two centrists—have decided to break with their respective parties and join the other side. Reporters will find the positions taken by these two unremarkable, since Nelson and Snowe have crossed the aisle many times before (their party unity scores are regularly in the 50s, compared to McCain's 84). The news stories that follow will still describe the story as a clash between the two parties, and Nelson and Snowe will be footnotes at best, bit players in the drama whose actions don't change the underlying news narrative.

But if John McCain decides that he will join Snowe and side with the Democrats, the story being written in the media undergoes a dramatic shift. It now becomes not a story about a conflict between the Democrats and the Republicans, but a story about a conflict between John McCain and the Republicans. He instantly becomes the lead actor in the tale, as Democrats fade into the background. His name will be in the headlines, and every article about the topic will include quotes from McCain, reminders of past breaks with his party, a quote from a representative of a conservative interest group attacking McCain, and stirring descriptions of the Arizona senator's courageous independence, political consequences be damned.

A comparison might be useful. Over her time in the Senate, Hillary Clinton has voted with Republicans on any number of occasions. On several key issues, she is more centrist than most of her party—she supports the death penalty, she was a longtime advocate of NAFTA, and she is more hawkish on foreign affairs than most Democrats. Furthermore, if reporters wanted to, they could find plenty of officials from Washington-based progressive groups who would offer critical quotes of her position on a given issue as insufficiently loyal to progressive principles. Yet if a reporter referred to Hillary Clinton as a "maverick," his colleagues would laugh him out of town.

There is one other key factor to understand in the making of the "maverick" myth. Look at the times when McCain has differed with his Republican colleagues, and what you find is that in almost every case, the position held by most in the GOP was broadly unpopular with the public. Campaign finance reform, regulation of tobacco, even the Bush tax cuts (to which the public was indifferent and which McCain could hardly support, having criticized them as Bush's opponent in the 2000 presidential race)—in every case, the position McCain took put him on the right side of public opinion. So what the press calls "maverick" stands could just as easily be interpreted as highly political efforts to maintain McCain's strong popularity with the general public. For someone whose goal was to gain sufficient affection among his colleagues to rise to become his party's leader in the Senate, these would be unwise moves. But McCain never demonstrated any interest in a position in the Senate leadership—his sights were set higher.

Much of presidential campaign coverage is about "character"—who the candidates really are deep down, beyond their position papers and television ads. Reporters decided long ago that John McCain's character is of a higher order than ordinary mortals. In their telling, his motives are pure, his every word and deed speaks of unrivaled courage, and his fierce independence makes him a "maverick." Everything McCain does is either highlighted or ignored based on whether it fits this pre-existing portrait. So when McCain lards his campaign with lobbyists and GOP insiders, as he did in its initial formation, or when he genuflects before religious radicals like Jerry Falwell and John Hagee, reporters dismiss it as a momentary aberration not representing the real John McCain.

So too with the perennial topic of flip-flops. When he ran for president in 2000, McCain decided to skip the Iowa caucus, and noted his opposition to heavy government subsidies of ethanol, made from Iowa corn (a topic of frequent presidential candidate pandering). But in the current campaign, McCain did contest the Iowa caucuses, and by an extraordinary coincidence changed his position on ethanol 180 degrees. Had it been another candidate—Mitt Romney or John Kerry, for instance—reporters would have presented the flip-flop as revealing of the candidate's character, a window into his cynical, pandering soul. But not when the flopper is John McCain. Nor has he been criticized by pundits for his turnaround on immigration; after receiving criticism for his support of President Bush's comprehensive immigration reform, in recent months McCain became a convert to the gospel of border security, emphasizing to the GOP faithful at every campaign stop that he wants to secure the borders first, not enact the comprehensive reform he used to favor.

But the idea that John McCain might be described as a panderer and a flip-flopper—in other words, that he might be just like the other politicians on whom they heap disdain—would not register with a press corps that has spent the last decade lauding McCain as the exception to the rule, the politician whose unquestionable integrity just shows how debased the rest of our politics really is. He's a "maverick," even when he's hugging the GOP in a warm embrace. He delivers "straight talk," even when he's not telling the truth. The journalists and pundits have a story they believe in their hearts about John McCain, and they're going to tell it no matter what.


TOPICS: Politics/Elections
KEYWORDS: elections; maverick; mccain; myth
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1 posted on 02/14/2008 8:49:10 AM PST by forkinsocket
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To: forkinsocket

See tagline.


2 posted on 02/14/2008 8:51:27 AM PST by cripplecreek (Just call me M.O.M. (Maverick Opposed to McCain.))
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To: forkinsocket
there is one thing we know for sure about how the general election will play out: The Democrat is going to be at a serious disadvantage in the media.

Did I wake up in an alternate universe today?

3 posted on 02/14/2008 8:53:38 AM PST by digger48 (http://prorev.com/legacy.htm)
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To: digger48

A moderate Democrat is no mavarick.


4 posted on 02/14/2008 8:54:48 AM PST by tennteacher (Romney '08)
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To: forkinsocket

Voting for McCain is like a box of chocolates...you never know what you’ll get. Actually, you do if you’re willing to study his most recent record.


5 posted on 02/14/2008 8:54:48 AM PST by GBA ( God Bless America!)
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To: forkinsocket

2008 is the year of the “Top Gun” presidential campaign....Maverick running against Icewoman...


6 posted on 02/14/2008 8:54:59 AM PST by NRA1995 (Bill Clinton: HILLARY!'s other big ass)
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To: digger48

A moderate Democrat is no maverick.

Oops! Misspelling. I hate it when I do that.


7 posted on 02/14/2008 8:56:06 AM PST by tennteacher (Romney '08)
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To: forkinsocket
More appropriate:


8 posted on 02/14/2008 8:56:50 AM PST by TexasCajun
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To: digger48

Yeah, that’s where I stopped reading.

Anyone who thinks MSM’s McCain love will carry on into the general election is a maroon.


9 posted on 02/14/2008 8:57:18 AM PST by BigBobber
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To: forkinsocket

nd by an extraordinary coincidence changed his position on ethanol 180 degrees.
-

no he did not
here’s what he said
McCain said that he believes American farmers can compete with anyone in the world and that they do not need the subsidies and regulations that come with big federal programs. “I trust Americans. I trust the markets. And I oppose subsidies,” McCain said.
http://www.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071106/NEWS09/711060402


10 posted on 02/14/2008 8:58:39 AM PST by ari-freedom (True conservatives don't help Democrats win.)
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To: BigBobber

you’ll see...the MSM will destroy Obama after pushing him up.


11 posted on 02/14/2008 9:00:26 AM PST by ari-freedom (True conservatives don't help Democrats win.)
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To: forkinsocket

“Maverick” is just the current media codeword that means “liberal pretending to be a republican”. Given that definition, McCain certainly fits the title.


12 posted on 02/14/2008 9:01:19 AM PST by SlayerOfBunnies (An Indian friend of mine wishes to remind everyone... Indians <> muslims)
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To: forkinsocket

I always said that I was willing to have the GOP candidate lose if it meant that HRC would never become president.
Looks like that will come true.


13 posted on 02/14/2008 9:01:29 AM PST by threeleftsmakearight
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To: forkinsocket

I thought the article was going to be about the Jason Kidd trade that got nixed.


14 posted on 02/14/2008 9:02:10 AM PST by VRWCmember (McCain 2008 - If it's inevitable, you might as well lay back and try to enjoy it.)
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To: forkinsocket

What is this guy smoking? The media, which is about 97% leftist and has been taking its talking points from the DNC for 20 years, if not 40 years, is going to support a Republican?

Sure, the media love McCain. Until about 5 minutes after he is nominated.

Ask the British Conservative party whether you can win elections by being the Me Too Party. No matter how far left McManiac goes, the MSM and the leftists will still vote Democrat. And the base will stay home.


15 posted on 02/14/2008 9:05:24 AM PST by Cicero (Marcus Tullius)
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To: forkinsocket
With the Democrats offering up the two most replusive candidates in the history of DNC politics, folks better think long and hard if that is what they want for America's future. Besides, our troops deserve better than Hillary or Obama as POTUS/CIC.


Hillary Clinton is a Hard-Core Liberal.*** Barack Obama is a Hard-Core Liberal.

16 posted on 02/14/2008 9:05:41 AM PST by Reagan Man (McCain Wants My Conservative Vote --- EARN IT or NO DEAL !!!)
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To: forkinsocket
And in summary, here's what the "maverick" has done for the Republican Party...


17 posted on 02/14/2008 9:05:50 AM PST by Digital Sniper (Hello, "Undocumented Immigrant." I'm an "Undocumented Border Patrol Agent.")
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To: Digital Sniper
The "Maverick" is a creation of the press.

He is really just another opportunistic traitor to his cause.


18 posted on 02/14/2008 9:20:35 AM PST by Iron Munro (Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.)
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To: GBA

As the old sayings state - he is one can short of a six pack or his elevator does not go all the way top


19 posted on 02/14/2008 10:19:40 AM PST by mulligan
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To: forkinsocket
"The Democrat is going to be at a serious disadvantage in the media."

The only "myth" here is this guy's article!

20 posted on 02/14/2008 10:24:41 AM PST by penowa
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To: forkinsocket
fact, McCain is a reliable conservative, and if not a perfectly loyal Republican, at least a reasonably loyal one.

The torrent contnues unabated. McCain cannot make this argument himself, apparently.

21 posted on 02/14/2008 10:29:58 AM PST by MortMan (Those who stand for nothing fall for anything. - Alexander Hamilton)
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To: forkinsocket
Campaign finance reform, regulation of tobacco, even the Bush tax cuts (to which the public was indifferent and which McCain could hardly support, having criticized them as Bush's opponent in the 2000 presidential race)—in every case, the position McCain took put him on the right side of public opinion.

So, instead of a Maverick, he's a poll-worshipping populist? Who doesn't understand the constitution?

This is better?

22 posted on 02/14/2008 10:31:51 AM PST by MortMan (Those who stand for nothing fall for anything. - Alexander Hamilton)
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To: TexasCajun

Don’t confuse a neigh sayer for an ass.


23 posted on 02/14/2008 12:08:50 PM PST by Paleo Conservative
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To: forkinsocket
When it comes to John McCain, however, it's pure love.

That was only during the primaries. The love affair will be over when he's fighting with the Dem nominee.
24 posted on 02/14/2008 1:50:22 PM PST by CottonBall (The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (Henry David Thoreau, "Walden", 1854 ))
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To: digger48
Did I wake up in an alternate universe today?

A spinning one.
25 posted on 02/14/2008 1:51:07 PM PST by CottonBall (The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (Henry David Thoreau, "Walden", 1854 ))
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To: Reagan Man

If that’s all you got for reasons to vote for McCain, it’s not enough....


26 posted on 02/14/2008 1:52:40 PM PST by CottonBall (The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (Henry David Thoreau, "Walden", 1854 ))
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To: CottonBall

Okay, we’ll put you down in support of Hillary or Obama as POTUS/CIC. Our troops thank you for letting them down.


27 posted on 02/14/2008 3:00:46 PM PST by Reagan Man (McCain Wants My Conservative Vote --- EARN IT or NO DEAL !!!)
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To: forkinsocket

The first lie is the second sentence.

The media can not wait until Mc Cain is offically nominated.

They will attack him with a ferocity that will make their attacks on President Bush seem like a love fest.

They did not have anything on President Bush but thy have enough true scandals on Mc Cain to run a new scandal each nesw session. Then they can do something at which they have no peer. Lie.


28 posted on 02/14/2008 3:08:53 PM PST by sport
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To: digger48

You caught it too I see.


29 posted on 02/14/2008 3:09:49 PM PST by sport
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To: Reagan Man
Okay, we’ll put you down in support of Hillary or Obama as POTUS/CIC. Our troops thank you for letting them down.

Well, that was certainly a weak and emotional reaction. Sounds like you've been taking lessons from the Dems on how to motivate voters. Except that you are trying to motivate people that can think - and insults and guilt trips don't work. I gather you can't come up with a reason to vote FOR McCain, only against him.

And as far as the troops go, I think it is foolish to fight a war overseas while our nation is unsecured. We have no idea who is here, don't keep track of anyone, and don't know their purpose. Imagine if we fought WWII that way.
30 posted on 02/14/2008 5:58:50 PM PST by CottonBall (The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (Henry David Thoreau, "Walden", 1854 ))
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To: CottonBall

Don’t blame others for an intelligent response to your dumb reply. The fact you have nothing of substance to offer is your fault, not mine.


31 posted on 02/14/2008 6:15:05 PM PST by Reagan Man (McCain Wants My Conservative Vote --- EARN IT or NO DEAL !!!)
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To: Reagan Man

LOL! You’re delusional. Show me where you gave good, concrete reasons to back McCain, most especially based on his past record.....I’m listening....


32 posted on 02/14/2008 6:21:55 PM PST by CottonBall (The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (Henry David Thoreau, "Walden", 1854 ))
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To: Reagan Man
Don’t blame others for an intelligent response to your dumb reply.

Your 'intelligent response' was to use emotion and guilt to get me to vote for McCain? You HAVE been learning from the Dems!
33 posted on 02/14/2008 6:23:04 PM PST by CottonBall (The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (Henry David Thoreau, "Walden", 1854 ))
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To: Digital Sniper
LOL! Nice Graphic! I like it!
(Too bad it's so damn true)
34 posted on 02/14/2008 6:26:16 PM PST by Fiddlstix (Warning! This Is A Subliminal Tagline! Read it at your own risk!(Presented by TagLines R US))
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To: CottonBall
>>>>>You’re delusional.

Why, because I believe our troops deserve the best leadership available. And IMO, that is not Hillary or Osama Obama. Get real!

If you want to oppose McCain at this early stage, fine, have at it. With 8+ months to go, I will take a wait and see position. But a vote for Hillary or Obama, is a vote against the troops, the surge and the WOT.

35 posted on 02/14/2008 6:32:07 PM PST by Reagan Man (McCain Wants My Conservative Vote --- EARN IT or NO DEAL !!!)
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To: forkinsocket

John McCain is eager to sell out every social conservative who voted for him.


36 posted on 02/14/2008 10:59:24 PM PST by Mr. Ion
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