Or Not To Be

By Jack Atherton

John McCain must be grumbling these days, "How all occasions do inform against me." It's the lament of Hamlet, who also said the readiness is all. While McCain, following Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, contends Barack Obama is not ready to be president, Obama's admirers see a young, university-honed prince, the glass of fashion and the mold of form -- just the guy to fix this time that's out of joint.

But Obama's not Hamlet. He's another literary character, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, the mysterious outsider who's been in search of a self. Don't believe me? Read the senator's own books, especially Dreams from My Father.  

No, the Hamlet in this race is John McCain. His almost prideful sense of honor - clashing with an unjust, absurd world - leads McCain this way and that until like Hamlet he's at last overwhelmed by events.

It wasn't always so. This race was supposed to be about national security. It's the issue that won Barack Obama the Democratic nomination. His firm anti-war stance made groups like MoveOn.Org swoon. They mobilized the caucus voters who beat Hillary Clinton in Iowa, and by the time Clinton realized she'd moved to the center too soon, the Democrats' proportional allocation of delegates kept her from catching up.

That seemed to set up John McCain perfectly. He was the man who first pushed the troop surge in Iraq, which Obama opposed. Obama still does not publicly acknowledge its strategic success. Yet it's precisely that success that took Iraq off the radar. The war is no longer an issue. McCain succeeded too well and too soon. Similarly, Russia invaded Georgia too soon for anyone now to be fretting over Obama's first suggestion of moral equivalence between Putin and Saakashvilli.

A month or so ago McCain also hoped this race would be about energy. We're paying our enemies to fuel our economy, yet Democrats oppose tapping most domestic oil reserves. They temporize about going nuclear and speak out of both sides of their mouths about clean coal. Compared with Obama, the geriatric McCain looked like the Energizer Bunny. But, as Hamlet would say, energy independence is now more honored in the breach than the observance because it's been trumped by another domestic issue.

The last thing any Republican needs a month before an election is to be defending lenders and speculators. The Wall Street meltdown is now drowning McCain in a sea of troubles that must seem more unjust every time he comes up for air. After all, for all his deregulatory talk McCain really did warn Congress about the excesses of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that inflated the housing bubble. While Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, and other Democrats were insisting that subprime mortgages be issued to constituents who had no down payments and could not pay interest, Barack Obama was tapping Jim Johnson of Fannie Mae infamy to head his vice-presidential search team.

And here's where McCain becomes the melancholy Dane. In another time, Hamlet might have been an effective prince. But with the murder of his dad and remarriage of his mom to his murderous uncle, Hamlet faced a crisis that paralyzed him.  McCain was paralyzed by the bailout bill.

This alleged solution to the credit crunch may or may not have been a necessary evil, but much of McCain's base perceived it as a naked Washington power grab that rewarded the very people who created this crisis.  Festooned in its final form with oodles of pork, it was pushed not just by Democrats but, crucially, also by President Bush and GOP leaders Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Boehner of West Chester -- none of them champions of small government. Their bi-partisanship robbed McCain of one of his best targets: a Democrat-led Congress with history's lowest approval rating, far lower even than President Bush's.

Now McCain can no longer warn how reckless it'll be to have Barack Obama working hand-in-glove with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, since his own party's put a ring on their finger. Indeed, McCain became a suitor, suspending his campaign to help broker a shotgun wedding. At first, McCain seemed to be speaking for his fellow mavericks. But then came the tipping point in this campaign.

The first presidential debate was supposed to focus on foreign policy. Yet everyone knew the first question would be about the bailout bill that had just failed in the House. McCain could have spoken forcefully about the conservatives' concerns. He could have explained their alternative rescue plan. After all, markets that were supposed to have tanked instead that very day had made a comeback. Some "experts" said it was because investors still expected a deal. But others said it was because they hoped for a better deal.

And then, at center stage, instead of delivering a stirring exhortation to his comrades in arms, McCain became - not Henry V at Agincourt, but Hamlet watching Claudius pray. "Now might I do it pat!" But he didn't. McCain instead mumbled something about bringing House Republicans to the table, and perhaps requiring insurance, paid by speculators, rather than the taxpayer purchase of devalued loans. Then McCain moved on to earmarks. He was great on earmarks. Except that the bailout bill he wound up backing included more than $100 billion dollars worth of earmarks and tax loopholes.

Why did McCain muff the critical moment in that debate? Sometimes, like Hamlet, he'll strike out impulsively, as when the prince stabbed Polonius and McCain called for firing SEC chair Chris Cox. Hamlet was mistaken and McCain may have been too. But Hamlet usually is not impulsive. Rather, he concedes that his resolution is weakened by "the pale cast of thought." McCain is not considered overly cerebral. Yet his legislative fame is based, not on impulsiveness or dogma, but on compromise - McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform, McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship, McCain-Kennedy Comprehensive Immigration and so forth. He loves reaching across the aisle. He sees it as the kind of transcendent politics Obama preaches but rarely practices. Obama is a liberal. McCain is... McCain.

And maybe this time he was right and even heroic for putting country above ambition, as McCain still feels he did with the immigration bill reviled by his base. The House Republicans' alternative may have been good politics but bad policy. We'll never know. But right or wrong, supporting the bailout bill has crippled McCain's campaign.

Assuming he loses, as at this moment seems likely (and perhaps always was, given the nation's appetite for change) McCain may best be remembered for having elevated Sarah Palin. Yet even that choice evokes Hamlet. Conservatives see Palin and remember all they ever mistrusted about McCain. Much as they fear an Obama presidency, especially for how it will reshape the courts, they believe 2012 will be a repeat of 1980, when Jimmy Carter's disastrous presidency ushered in Ronald Reagan. John McCain is for those conservatives a real if tragic hero, "a noble heart," and he will be mourned. But Sarah Palin is their Fortinbras, waiting to take over at the end of Hamlet.