Arik McCain

Matt Yglesias has written a bunch of posts over the past few months asking the rhetorical question: why do so many people think McCain might be a pragmatic realist in office when his recent record is of being the neocon’s neocon and the hawk’s hawk?

This article by John Judis from a couple of years ago is probably a better-than-average representative of the kind of view of McCain that Yglesias finds maddening. Judis seems pretty sure that, somewhere in there, lurks the old McCain, the one who was cautious about foreign entanglements and the use of American military power, and that it is a reasonable possibility that this McCain is the one that will emerge should he win the Presidency, rather than the McCain of “bomb, bomb Iran” and the 100-year Iraqi war.

I think Judis does a reasonably good job of explaining why someone like him might feel that way about Senator McCain. The only thing I want to add is an analogy.

When Ariel Sharon was running his first successful campaign for Prime Minister of Israel, the assumption on the Israeli left – and in most of the world – was that if elected he would ruthlessly crush the Palestinian uprising, but that he would also be intransigent on the question of the disposition of the territories. Sharon was, after all, the father of the settlements, a man who took a provocative walk on the Temple Mount that, depending on your interpretation of the events, provided the spark or the excuse for that uprising, a man who had said (even after being elected) that “the fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv.”

But what Sharon said shortly after being elected was: things look different from the Prime Minister’s seat. Previously, he had been the leader of a faction, and then the leader of a party. He was pushing a program, whether from the inside or the outside, but the buck stopped somewhere else. Now, the buck stopped with him. The world looked different. As Prime Minister, Sharon no longer thought primarily in terms of pushing his agenda; his first priority was uniting the country. And, of course, Sharon is the Israeli Prime Minister who unequivocally committed Israel to the idea of a two-state solution, and who unilaterally pulled out all the settlers and Israeli troops from Gaza.

Sharon certainly did not govern Israel from the left. But he governed from a very different place on the Israeli spectrum than many of his opponents and supporters expected he would when he was campaigning. And both his opponents and his supporters came to recognize that fact, sooner or later.

I think those who anticipate or hope for a more measured and realistic President McCain than the Senator McCain we’ve seen are anticipating or hoping for a similar transformation. That he will sit in the Oval Office and, as if by the descent of some Presidential charism, his priorities will change. More important than his sense of honor, personal or national, will be his sense of responsibility – above all, a sense of responsibility for whether Americans think of themselves as united in their fate and in their purpose. And that this sense of responsibility will lead to very different policies than a look at Senator McCain’s recent foreign policy record would indicate.

That’s a fairly audacious hope, given how McCain has positioned himself over the past decade. But, as the example of Arik Sharon indicates, it’s not an entirely vain one.