The John McCain "centrism" fallacy

Just as they did with Rudy Giuliani, journalists are depicting McCain as a "centrist" despite his having foreign policy views as militaristic and extremist as one can get in the mainstream.


Glenn Greenwald
March 31, 2008 3:15PM (UTC)

In a lengthy and largely (though not completely) admiring profile of John McCain, Newsweek's Michael Hirsh writes:

Lieberman, [McCain's] fellow centrist, recently seems to have assigned himself the role of McCain's monitor. Just two weeks ago, when McCain mistakenly said Iran was training Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters, it was the Connecticut senator who again pulled him aside, gently reminding him that the Iranian regime has been accused of training fellow Shiite extremists, not Sunni Al Qaeda.

(There's that generous and patently false "McCain-was-merely-mistaken" media defense again). And there's also this:

There is much to like in both McCains. He's pragmatic in the service of the national interest; he rises to passion when he believes that America's best values are at stake. Even some of those who fret about his zeal and temper say they plan to vote for him (just as many ultraconservatives who worry about his centrism say they'll reluctantly pull the lever as well).

And here's the glorifying headline:

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The World According to John McCain

He's both the consummate pragmatist and a zealous crusader for causes he feels just. The question is which America needs now.

At the very core of the media's reverence for John McCain is the blatant, tired myth that he's a "centrist."

Like Lieberman, McCain may deviate from right-wing dogma on discrete issues when it comes to domestic policy questions. But on questions of foreign policy, national security and war, McCain -- and Lieberman -- are as extremist as it gets in the mainstream political spectrum. On those obviously central issues, there simply is nobody and nothing to the Right of McCain.

McCain marks the absolute outer ideological boundary of American militarism, imperialism and war-making, particularly (though not only) in the Middle East. That's why he's long been enthusiastically supported by the country's most crazed warmongers -- such as Bill Kristol, James Woolsey, most of the PNAC crowd, and Lieberman. In no meaningful sense are such individuals "centrists," and neither is McCain.

This same misleading media "centrism" fallacy was being applied throughout 2007 to the incomparably war-crazed Rudy Giuliani when he was the GOP front-runner, and at the time, I wrote:

The most transparent and destructive fallacy being recited by our Beltway media class is that Rudy Giuliani is a moderate or centrist Republican. Examples of this fallacy are everywhere. . . . .

This whole "moderate" myth is grounded exclusively in Giuliani's non-doctrinaire views of social issues. But that's pure fallacy. Political ideology doesn't function like mathematics, where two numbers situated on opposite extreme poles can be averaged together to produce a nice, comfortable number in the middle.

That isn't how political ideology works. A warmonger with authoritarian impulses and liberal positions on social issues isn't a "moderate" or a "centrist." He's just a warmonger with authoritarian impulses and liberal positions on social issues.

Applying that fallacy to McCain is even more irrational than it was to Giuliani, because the pro-life McCain is a far more conventional conservative on social issues. His own campaign touts his steadfast adherence to the right-wing agenda, and his lifetime conservative voting rating is to the Right of numerous GOP Senators who are standard right-wing Bush loyalists, including Ted Stevens, Thad Cochran, Norm Coleman, and Kit Bond, and is far, far to the Right of actual "centrist" (though still Bush-loyal) Republicans such as Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.

The issues the media typically cites to justify the "centrist" label -- criticism of the early Iraq strategy and his alleged opposition to torture -- prove the opposite point. McCain's criticism of Rumsfeld's strategy was tactical, not ideological, and merely amounted to a demand for more troops to occupy that country. And McCain has become the single greatest enabler of legalized torture in the United States, by exempting the CIA from his 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, leading the way in ensuring enactment of the 2006 Military Commissions Act, and opposing the 2008 ban on waterboarding.

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The indisputable fact is that McCain, on foreign policy issues, holds views far to the Right and far outside of mainstream American public opinion. In Media World, the GOP presidential nominee is always a centrist, a new kind of Republican, a trans-partisan pragmatist, while the Democratic nominee is always just a dogmatic liberal. So in one sense, this is just par for the media course (just go read how George Bush and Dick Cheney were relentlessly depicted during the 2000 campaign).

But depicting McCain as a "centrist" is an attempt to mainstream decidedly extreme positions, and worse, it obscures and distorts one of the vital issues that ought to be decided in the election: namely, whether McCain's radical foreign policy views and war-based national security approach -- grounded in the defining Bush/Cheney doctrine -- is something America wants to continue. One can and should debate whether that mindlessly belligerent Kristol/Lieberman/Bolton approach is constructive and ought to continue. The view that we should continue to invade, bomb, occupy and control the governance of various Middle Eastern countries -- while managing much of the rest of the world -- is something the country should debate. But by no metric is there anything "centrist" about McCain's view that we should.


Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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