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RIP John McCain: His popularity is a rarity in politics today

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john mccain
Sen.
John McCain

Associated Press/Andrew
Harnik


  • One reason Sen. John McCain was so popular was the
    cross-aisle sense that McCain meant well and sought to make his
    country better.
  • Giving politicians credit for meaning well has fallen
    out of fashion.
  • Meaning well is not everything — but it’s still
    important.

Sen. John McCain, who died on Saturday at age
81
, was consistently much more popular than John McCain’s
policy ideas.

One driver of McCain’s high popularity was his heroic sacrifice
for the country in the Vietnam War. His charming personality and
sense of humor also helped (though the latter
could severely backfire at times
). And the media certainly
appreciated McCain’s extreme availability to the media.

But there was also an important sense across much of the spectrum
that McCain meant well. McCain lived a life of service and he
sought to make his country better. When he was wrong, he was
sincerely wrong.

Is that important? Well, that’s a central question in American
politics today.

‘Meaning well’ as a distraction from doing good

Why might it be bad to care whether politicians and officials
“mean well?”

One objection comes mostly from the left, and you can see it in
the furious reaction to anyone who says something nice about
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s personal character —
that he is a good mentor to diverse classes of law clerks, or
that
he’s well liked in the soccer carpool.

The idea here is that focusing on personal character amounts to
taking the eye off the ball: When you give someone credit for
being a nice guy, you give him room to make policy decisions you
oppose.

And this was one of the left’s biggest complaints about McCain
over the years: That his positive personal reputation got him
undue political popularity and an unearned reputation as a
“maverick” despite his fairly ordinary conservative record on
policymaking.

(In his last year in office, McCain’s dramatic vote to block the
Republican healthcare repeal effort
did move his substantive
legislative track record significantly closer to the “maverick”
reputation.)

I think this critique of meaning well is partially correct and
partially misguided.

Definitely, you shouldn’t put someone on the Supreme Court just
because his neighbors say he is nice. Nor should McCain have been
elected president over Barack Obama just because of his war
service record or just because he was fun to hang out with on a
campaign bus.

But suppose everyone in the soccer carpool thought Kavanaugh was
a jerk. Wouldn’t that be useful information to know? Being
personally good isn’t a sufficient condition for confirmation to
the Supreme Court but it is a necessary one. Therefore, we need
to discuss whether nominees meet the condition.

The same is true for elected officials.

Does ‘meaning well’ mean not being selfish enough?

The other critique of “meaning well” comes from the right, and
it’s an impulse that got us President Donald Trump.

Well-meaning leaders have made a lot of significant mistakes over
the last 20 years. McCain was a cheerleader of some of those
mistakes, including the Iraq War. This has led to a significant
degree of sometimes warranted cynicism about politicians who
appear to mean well.

And for some conservatives, there is a sense that “meaning well”
means being altruistic on the public’s behalf. While McCain’s
politics were driven in large part by global concerns — a
desire to promote democracy and political freedom around the
world, a desire to admit immigrants who can benefit from entry to
the US — Trump explicitly rejects those concerns and
promises to be “greedy” on behalf of his supporters.

Under this view, Trump’s personality defects aren’t defects at
all. His voters wanted a jerk and they got one. They think
“meaning well” just makes you a cuck.

This is the likely source of the president’s barely concealed contempt for
McCain
. All this praise of McCain’s good character feels like
an implicit rebuke of the president for being immoral and vulgar.

Trump likes criminals and thieves and low-lifes.
He wants to
be praised for his flaws, not be compared to someone who was
tortured for his country.

It is important to have leaders who mean well — and who do
good

What the left and right critiques of good intentions have in
common is that they both warn against coming to admire
politicians with whom you disagree. Liberals warn you those
politicians may act against your interests; conservatives warn
they may give away your stuff.

But there is a problem with a scorched-earth politics that says
not to like your opponents: We all have to share one government
and one society. And if we convince ourselves never to find the
good in the people we disagree with, lest that distract us from
our continuous efforts to defeat and bury them, we are likely to
become miserable.

That’s because we won’t always succeed at defeating and burying
our political opponents. They will win, and we will have to be
able to stand living under them.

The key is striking a balance: Acknowledging the good in our
opponents in a way that makes it easier for us to live together
under governments that change from one party to the other,
without giving up the drive to win those elections.

But we can only have that kind of politics when we have
politicians who are deserving of a kind of cross-aisle
admiration, in the way that Barack Obama is and John McCain was.
It obviously is never going to work with the current president.

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