2020 is Not 20/20

Now that the 2018 midterms are finally, blessedly behind us, the 2020 presidential campaign can officially begin—and, with it, the mother-of-all-$64,000 questions:  Who will be sworn in as commander-in-chief on January 20, 2021?

The correct answer—or at least the most likely—is Donald Trump.  Like Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton before him, Trump in 2020 will carry all the built-in advantages of incumbency—money, familiarity and the presumed endorsement of his party.  Add to that his utter shamelessness and Triumph of the Will-style campaign rallies, and you have a nearly unbeatable force of nature that the Democratic Party is thus far unprepared to vanquish on a national scale.

That said, if the Democrats manage to field a challenger to Trump who succeeds in becoming the 46th president, history suggests he or she will be someone none of us is taking seriously today—and probably won’t take seriously until maybe a week or two before the New Hampshire primary some 14 months from now.

Lord knows this was the case two years ago, when the very notion of Donald Trump as a public official struck the entire media-industrial complex as an absurd fever dream until around 10:30 on Election Night.  So, too, was Barack Obama’s candidacy, eight years earlier, seen as a quixotic curiosity against the Hillary Clinton juggernaut until Obama nabbed one more delegate than Clinton in the Iowa caucuses and turned the entire 2008 narrative on its head.

Then there was the previous Democratic golden boy, Bill Clinton, who began the 1992 primaries all-but-unknown outside his home state of Arkansas and didn’t win a single primary until Super Tuesday—nearly a month after the Iowa caucuses, where he placed a very distant third.  Going back even further, much the same was the case with Jimmy Carter—a Southern governor who emerged from essentially nowhere and charged to the front of the pack, accumulating delegates and raw popular excitement along the way.

As I see it, the lesson from this is twofold.  First:  If the Democrats are interested in defeating Trump in 2020, the worst they could possibly do is to nominate a known quantity.  And second:  Anyone who believes he or she knows how the Democratic primaries will shake out is utterly and irretrievably full of it and should be ignored for as long as possible.

Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Advertisements

Unknown Unknowns

“What if we were wrong?”

So mused Barack Obama to an aide shortly after November 8, 2016, as the election returns poured in and it became clear Donald Trump—not Hillary Clinton—would be the next president of the United States.  After a full year of assuming someone as vulgar and cruel as Trump could not conceivably be elected commander-in-chief, Obama was suddenly faced with the possibility that he lived in a very different country from the one he inherited eight years earlier—and perhaps he should’ve seen it earlier.

It is the rare politician who has the nerve and humility to admit he was (possibly) mistaken, but the truth is that even us private citizens are loathe to acknowledge personal weakness and tend to avoid doing so at almost any cost.  In the tribal world we now inhabit, certitude takes precedence over nuance every time, because when all discourse is reduced to a zero-sum blood sport, there can be no such thing as ambiguity, complexity or doubt.

With 18 days until the midterms and control of Congress hanging ever-so-precariously in the balance, it is my fondest wish for my fellow Americans to take a cue from President Obama and stop being so goddamned certain about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Surely, if the last election cycle taught us anything—about our leaders, our politics and ourselves—it’s that there’s almost nothing we can claim to know beyond doubt, and the consequences of assuming otherwise can be catastrophic.

To wit:  If the biggest mistake the left made in 2016 was to assume Trump could not possibly win, it stands to reason their biggest mistake in 2020 will be to assume he could not possibly win again.  This despite the fact that a) his three immediate predecessors were all re-elected handily, and b) Trump himself continues to defy all laws of political gravity, maintaining a fairly consistent—albeit consistently tepid—approval rating no matter what unholy nonsense is going on around him.

That so many liberals still refuse to see what is directly in front of their nose—namely, that Donald Trump is, thus far, politically unsinkable—is reflective of the blue team’s broader intellectual weakness of believing Trump and his acolytes are a bunch of rubes who have nothing useful to teach them.

But what if they do?  What if Trump’s personal indestructability is attributable not merely to rank stupidity on the part of 40 percent of the electorate, but rather to concrete policy achievements and genuine political skill?  What if Trump is smarter and shrewder than his critics give him credit for?  What if there are certain issues on which he has acquitted himself well, and not merely through beginner’s dumb luck?

What if, say, the 2017 tax bill really did supercharge the economy and make most Americans lives better?  What if Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea really did bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table?  What if Trump’s proposed Mexican wall really would protect the U.S. from drugs and criminals spilling across our southern border?

Then there are the issues that extend well beyond Trump himself.  For instance, what if the federal government really is overstuffed with bureaucrats and regulations and deserves a bit of thinning out around the edges?  What if the direst predictions about climate change are overblown and the proposed solutions not worth the cost?  What if single-payer health insurance leads to less efficient care?  What if armed guards at schools prevent more gun deaths than they cause?  What if political correctness—on campus and off—has become so pervasive that it now poses a real threat to free speech in the public square?  What if Brett Kavanaugh didn’t assault Christine Blasey Ford in 1982?

None of these questions are settled—some may never be—yet nearly all of us act like the answers are obvious and not worth debatingand, what’s more, that those with differing views are not just wrong, but evil, beyond redemption and deserving of our bottomless contempt.

The result of this—as any clear-eyed person can see—is a society of angry, arrogant, insufferable boors for whom a question like “What if we were wrong?” is treated like a punchline, eliciting guffaws and eyerolls instead of even a moment’s thoughtful pause.

In this disheartening period of civic discourse, I am reminded of a 2006 speech by the late British-American pugilist Christopher Hitchens, who challenged his audience to ask itself, “How do I know what I already think I know?”

“It’s always worth establishing first principles,” Hitchens argued.  “It’s always worth saying, ‘What would I do if I ever met a Flat Earth Society member?  Come to think of it, how can I prove the Earth is round?  How sure am I of my own views?’”

Finishing the thought, Hitchens cautioned, “Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think, you’re bound to be OK because you’re in the safely moral majority.

In 2018, there is no such thing as consensus, and we should start acting accordingly.  Not by abandoning all the values we hold dear, but simply by recognizing that ours are not the only values that have value.

Something Nice to Say

I suppose you’ll regard me a sentimental old fluff, but I’ve always had a soft spot for politicians who say nice things about their opponents.  Partisanship in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere has grown so absolute in recent years, mutating into more and more of a zero-sum blood sport, that it feels outright quaint when some senator or other puts in a good word for a colleague of the other party—especially when he or she has no particular reason to do so.

As the nation commemorates the death of John McCain—war hero, senator and two-time presidential candidate—a great deal has been said and written about the moment in 2008 when McCain defended the honor of Barack Obama against the racist ranting of some idiot at a town hall.  (The audience member called Obama “an Arab.”  McCain responded, “He’s a decent family man.”)  While one can argue McCain’s retort was itself racist—who knew Islam and decency were mutually exclusive?—it was plainly, if clumsily, meant in a spirit of generosity towards a man who, at that moment, posed an existential threat to McCain’s greatest ambition in life:  the presidency.

While that flourish of sportsmanship had acquired near-mythical status even before McCain’s death, what has been largely forgotten is how careful then-Senator Obama was about showing due deference to McCain every time his name came up.  Watch any stump speech from that period, and you’ll find Obama preceding virtually any criticism of his electoral adversary with some iteration of, “John McCain is an American hero and we honor his service.”

For Obama, there were both moral and strategic reasons to maintain an effusive respect for McCain’s personal history and character, and they reflected well on both men.  Having not served in the armed forces himself—much less withstood five-and-half years of torture as a prisoner of war—Obama understood he could not attempt to out-patriot McCain without making himself look ridiculous, so instead he simply conceded the point and moved on.

In so doing, Obama demonstrated both a humility and self-confidence about his lack of military service that few other non-veteran politicos (including a certain sitting president) possess.  It was as if to say, “I don’t need to be the braver man in order to be the better president.”  In the end, the American people agreed.

Because presidential (and other) elections have grown exponentially nastier over the past decade, with candidates loath to cede the slightest advantage to their challengers—reticent, indeed, to view them as human beings—it has largely fallen to the press to coax a touch of class out of these otherwise soulless contests.  More often than not, televised debates will feature some version of the question, “What is one thing you admire about your opponent?”  It’s an entirely worthy query to include in a public forum, precisely because so few politicians are willing (or able) to provide an honest answer.  As such, their responses often provide a useful insight into their psyches.

Historically, the most typical response is an approximation of Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, when she offered that the most (read:  only) admirable thing about Donald Trump was the apparent love of his family—a weak, lazy, evasive answer that recalls Bill Maher’s quip, “Hitler’s dog liked him.”  Oddly, Trump’s (forced) compliment for Clinton—“She doesn’t quit; she doesn’t give up; I respect that”—registered as the far more genuine and heartfelt of the two.  Who’d a thunk?

More impressive still—not least for its specificity—was Elizabeth Warren in her first Senate race, in 2012, against Republican incumbent Scott Brown, whom she complimented in a debate for his Senate vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that had prevented LGBT soldiers from serving openly.  As a liberal Democrat in Massachusetts, Warren would’ve had good reason not to mention what was arguably Brown’s most progressive act in the Senate—i.e., the decision most likely to win him a decisive number of Democratic votes on Election Day—yet, instead, she gave him credit for doing the right thing at a critical moment, unafraid that it would backfire at the polls.  In the end, it didn’t.

And why should it have?  For all the junk energy the public derives from WWE-style political gamesmanship, Americans equally appreciate—and are presently starved for—such old-time virtues as generosity, modesty and temperance from their representatives on Capitol Hill.  We may no longer expect that sort of upstanding behavior from these disreputable people, but seeing as we continue to pay their salaries and bear the consequences of all their official acts, we should jolly well demand nothing less.

Speaking well of one’s counterparts, however disagreeable, constitutes a form of charity in an otherwise bankrupt world—a means of acknowledging someone else’s humanity even while engaged in a political duel to the death—and it is my fondest wish that more public figures would run the risk of making other people look good every now and again, understanding that, in a roundabout way, it will make themselves look pretty good, too.

Cult 45

Way back in 2015, when the candidacy of Donald Trump struck most of America as a joke, many of us floated the theory—with tongue only half in cheek—that Trump was actually a Democratic Party plant, installed in the GOP primaries to discredit the entire Republican Party and ensure Hillary Clinton would be elected president in November 2016.

While history has rendered this hypothesis obsolete, there remains the underlying assumption upon which the theory was based, which is that Trump serves as a moral Rorschach test for every would-be conservative in America.

Posed as a question, the test is simply this:  How many of your so-called principles are you prepared to sacrifice on the altar of the most unprincipled man in America?  How many bridges are you willing to jump off before realizing that each one leads to nowhere?

If Donald Trump shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, would you still vote for him in 2020?

Of course, it was Trump himself who asserted early on that the answer to that last question is “yes” among his core supporters, and if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that he couldn’t have been more right.

At this point in his presidency, Trump is not a public servant so much as a personality cult, and as the corruption piles up and more and more of his deputies get hauled off to prison, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a certain fraction of the American public—roughly 30 percent, although estimates vary—who are so emotionally invested in Trump—the man, the brand, the whatever—that no amount of criminality is strong enough to penetrate the bubble of loyalty that exists between the commander-in-chief and his fellow travelers, the latter of whom appear utterly incapable of seeing what is directly in front of their noses—namely, that the man they worship is a crook.

They’re not drinking the Kool-Aid.  They’re injecting it intravenously.

As with all personality cults, the fundamental problem isn’t the leader himself; it’s his followers.  Any schmuck can stand on a platform and declare himself king.  The question is whether there is a critical mass of people desperate and gullible enough to hand him the crown and obey his every command.  There is no con without a mark, and it remains truly frightening how many of them the 45th president has acquired and maintained from the moment he entered the political fray.

While Trump undoubtedly constitutes the most insidious personality cult in American life today, his is hardly the only one from which to choose.  Unseemly as it might sound, Republicans hardly have a monopoly on prostrating themselves to a populist politician who promises them the moon.

How else to describe the famous “Bernie Bros”?  You know them:  The far-left supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders who quote his über-progressive platform word-for-word and will expound for hours about how the 2016 primaries were rigged—rigged, I tell you!—against their beloved Bernie by the evil Democratic Party establishment.  Never mind that Hillary Clinton received 3.7 million more votes than Sanders, winning 34 contests to Sanders’s 23:  The point, sayeth the Bros, is that Sanders was the only Democratic contender who could’ve defeated Trump in 2016, and in 2020 it is he—and he alone!—who could pry Trump from power and usher his socialist utopia into existence.

Sure sounds cultish to me.

This is not to imply a moral equivalence between Sanders and Trump, only one of whom is a repugnant, shameless charlatan with no sense of basic human decency.  Say what you will about the junior senator from Vermont and his pie-in-the-sky ideas, but Sanders has shown not a whiff of the racism or xenophobia that—odious as they are in one person—can quickly grow dangerous and deadly when harnessed by millions of mindless lemmings who believe they are acting on the Dear Leader’s orders.

And yet, in the end, a cult is still a cult, and the unifying characteristic of all cults is mindlessness—i.e., the willful suspension of one’s intellectual faculties in service of a singular Great Man to whom all loyalty is owed and from whom all of life’s problems will be solved.  If the unquestioned adherence to Trump by the MAGA crowd takes this tendency to new heights—or should we say depths?—by and large, much the same was true for the most hardcore supporters of Barack Obama, whose very existence was seen as a panacea for all the partisan discord ravaging Washington, D.C., circa 2008.

In time, of course, a majority of Obama’s admirers came to realize that, for all his personal qualities, the 44th president could not walk on water after all, and was as capable of betraying his campaign promises as any commander-in-chief who came before him.

Will the aura of infallibility eventually break among those who worship Donald Trump—a man who, unlike Obama, seems to truly believe he can do no wrong?

Meet me on Fifth Avenue for the answer.

Consent of the Governed, Part 2

This past Monday, the president nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court.  The balance of power being what it is, unless Kavanaugh is found with a dead girl or a live boy (in the immortal words of Edwin Edwards), he will be confirmed by the Senate later this year and the nation’s highest court will be as ideologically conservative as it has ever been in our lifetimes.

From the moment Justice Kennedy announced his retirement last month, liberals have been running around the airwaves with their hair on fire, screaming that this development constitutes the end of the world as we know it.  That the replacement of Kennedy’s so-called moderation with the true blue right-wingery of his successor will usher in a generation of irreversibly destructive decisions on every issue the left holds sacred, from abortion rights to gun control to civil liberties to campaign finance reform.

While Democrats’ concerns about Kavanaugh are undoubtedly well-founded—after all, he comes pre-packaged and pre-approved by the conservative judge factory known as the Federalist Society—they are also misleading and incomplete, insomuch as they overlook a much larger and more profound fact:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 years old.

Lament Kennedy’s departure if you wish, but the truth is that he was a fundamentally right-wing jurist whose flirtations with progressive causes, however crucial, were few and far between.  While he is rightly credited with preserving abortion rights in 1992 and effectuating same-sex marriage in 2015, he is equally responsible for the majority opinions in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. FEC—the two worst Supreme Court decisions since Plessy v. Ferguson, according to most liberals.  During the most recent term, he voted with the court’s conservative wing in every high-profile case that was decided by a 5-4 vote.  Every.  Single.  One.

Long story short:  Replacing Kennedy with a rock-ribbed conservative will not be the end of the world as we know it.  But replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a rock-ribbed conservative?  That will be the end of the world as we know it.

Perhaps it is bad form to observe that most human beings do not live forever, but if the Democratic Party is truly freaked out about losing every major Supreme Court case for a generation or more, it must come to grips with the fact that its most beloved and indispensable justice—the Notorious RBG—is an octogenarian and two-time cancer patient who, for health reasons, might need to leave the bench before the next Democratic president takes office.  Ginsburg may intend to serve well beyond the current administration, but then again, so did Antonin Scalia on February 12, 2016.

If Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer plan to make themselves useful in the coming months, they ought to emphasize, in no certain terms, that a Republican-majority Senate in 2018-2019 guarantees the appointment of Judge Kavanaugh—already a foregone conclusion, so far as I can tell—and that the re-election of Donald Trump in 2020 makes it exceedingly likely the court will contain only three—or perhaps only two—liberals by the end of Trump’s second term.  (Ginsburg’s like-minded colleague Stephen Breyer turns 80 next month.)

Elections have consequences, and one of them is a Supreme Court shaped in the image of the sitting commander-in-chief—an arrangement that has been in place continuously since 1787.

The left can whine all it wants about Russian shenanigans and Mitch McConnell’s dirty tricks vis-à-vis Merrick Garland, but the fact remains that people voted for president in November 2016 in the full knowledge that a) the winning candidate would be selecting the successor to the late Antonin Scalia, and that b) there would almost surely be additional openings on the court before his or her presidential tenure was up.  Candidate Trump made this point repeatedly on the campaign trail.  In retrospect, Hillary Clinton did not make it nearly enough—a mistake her party’s candidate in 2020 would be well-advised to avoid.

Lame as it may sound, Neil Gorsuch is on the Supreme Court today because Donald Trump received the most electoral votes in 2016 and there weren’t enough Democrats in the Senate to stop him.  Brett Kavanaugh will be on the Supreme Court this fall for precisely the same reason.

If you find this situation intolerable, you have two choices:  You can vote for Democratic senators on November 6, 2018, and for a Democratic presidential candidate on November 3, 2020.  Or you can assume John Roberts will magically evolve into a liberal overnight and that Ruth Bader Ginsberg will live to 120.

Personally, I’d recommend Option No. 1, however inconvenient it might be.  You’d be surprised what a democracy can accomplish when its citizens behave democratically.

Let Them Eat Tacos

I have no idea why the secretary of Homeland Security would dine out at a Mexican restaurant on the very day she defended the use of internment camps at the Mexican border.  I don’t know why the White House press secretary would show her face anywhere while acting as a mouthpiece for the most dishonest chief executive to ever sit in the Oval Office.

(If you missed it:  Last Tuesday, protesters yelled “shame!” at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen inside MXDC Cocina Mexicana in Washington, D.C.  Three days later, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the 26-seat Red Hen in Lexington, Va., by the restaurant’s owner after several employees were made uncomfortable by Sanders’s presence.)

I’m not the least bit surprised that both of those public officials would be confronted by angry constituents while attempting to enjoy a relaxing night on the town.  Given the tenor of public discourse in 21st century America, the miracle is that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often—or more violently.

I understand instinctively why those concerned citizens feel the need to vent their outrage at these crooks and liars face-to-face when given the opportunity.

In the future, however, I wish they would resist the urge to do so.

Before we go any further, I should probably mention that I am about the least confrontational person on the East Coast.  I’m not sure I’ve ever started an argument with anyone in my adult life, and whenever someone attempts to start an argument with me, I make every effort to tactfully withdraw from the conversation and/or the room.  For all the self-righteous vitriol I’ve unfurled on this site over the years, the notion of telling an odious prominent figure, in person, what I really think of them fills me with bottomless anxiety and dread.

Admittedly, as a privileged, native-born white male, it is very easy for me to hang back on the sidelines and allow human events (however alarming) to run their course.  For someone like me, the actions of President Trump and his collaborators may be irritating—even horrifying—but they do not pose an existential threat to my way of life and probably never will.

I realize, in short, that spending one’s day avoiding conflict and social discomfort is a luxury that many of my fellow Americans cannot afford, and that sometimes verbally lashing out at those who oppress you can feel like a moral imperative—and possibly the only recourse that is available to you as an otherwise powerless individual.  If members of the Trump administration are deliberately and pointlessly making millions of Americans’ (and non-Americans’) lives difficult, the argument goes, why shouldn’t they get a taste of their own toxic medicine whenever they enter space occupied by the victims of their noxious acts?

The reason they shouldn’t—the reason all public servants should be left unmolested when they’re not on the clock—is because Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high,” and every liberal in America cheered.

By its own rhetoric, if the Democratic Party stands for anything in the age of Trump, it’s moral superiority.  Whether stated directly or implicitly, the message from Democratic leaders and supporters in recent years is that, all things being equal, Democrats are the party of sanity, empathy and love for one’s fellow human beings, while Republicans are (to coin a phrase) deplorable.

Without question, Donald Trump’s own rotten character was the primary basis of voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016—“Love Trumps Hate” was arguably Clinton’s most successful and resonant slogan—and most liberals still regard Trump’s penchant for childish name-calling and general thuggery as an intolerable moral stain that must be repudiated at the polls in 2018 and 2020—namely, by voting for as many Democratic candidates as possible.

The question is:  If the left truly believes in the Judeo-Christian ethos of treating others as you would have others treat you—and that Trump and company constitute a monstrous perversion of this policy—do they not have a responsibility to exhibit such mature, noble behavior themselves?  To lead by example?  To understand that darkness cannot drive out darkness—only light can do that?  To be the change they want to see in the world?

I say yes, and this includes allowing Nielsen and Sanders to eat their dinner in peace, whether or not they deserve it.  Because in the end, this isn’t about them.  It’s about us.  And it’s not a good look for the so-called party of inclusion to start telling certain people they’re not welcome and they don’t belong.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

It says a lot about America that John McCain was never elected president.  It says even more that, in retrospect, we sort of wish he had been.

Indeed, all the way back in 2001, during an interview with Charlie Rose (ahem), Bill Maher cited McCain—recently defeated in the GOP primaries by George W. Bush—as among his favorite Republican politicians.  “He’s everyone’s favorite,” said Rose, to which Maher dismissively retorted, “Then why doesn’t he win?”

It’s a damn good question, and a useful lens through which to view our entire political system.  As McCain clings ever-more-precariously to life—having spent the last 10 months ravaged by glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer—we might reflect on the strange way that our most accomplished and admired public officials tend not to rise all the way to the Oval Office—and why a great many more never bother to run in the first place.

On paper, McCain would seem exactly the sort of person the Founding Fathers had in mind as a national leader:  A scrappy rebel from a distinguished family who proves his mettle on the battlefield, then parlays that fame into a steady career in public service.  (He was first elected to Congress in 1982 and has never held another job.)

While hardly a first-class intellect—he famously graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis—McCain’s grit and endurance through five-and-a-half years of torture and deprivation in a Vietnamese prison forever burnished his reputation as among the most indefatigable men in American life—someone who would speak truth to bullshit and hold no loyalties except to his own conscience.  Having cheated death multiple times, here was a man with precious little to fear and even less to lose.

Against this noble backdrop, it would be the understatement of the year to say that, as a two-time presidential candidate, John McCain was a complicated and contradictory figure—perhaps even a tragic one.  In 2000, he established his political persona as a crusty, “straight-talking” “maverick,” only to be felled in South Carolina by a racist Bush-sanctioned robocall operation that McCain was too gentlemanly to condemn.  (The robocalls implied, among other things, that McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh was an out-of-wedlock “love child.”)

Eight years later, having learned a thing or three about brass-knuckles campaigning, McCain scraped and clawed his way to the Republican nomination—besting no fewer than 11 competitors—only to throw it all away with the single most irresponsible decision of his life:  His selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

With nearly a decade of hindsight, the science is in that choosing Palin—a world-class ignoramus and America’s gateway drug to Donald Trump—constituted the selling of McCain’s soul for the sake of political expediency.  Rather than running with his good friend (and non-Republican) Joe Lieberman and losing honorably, he opted to follow his advisers’ reckless gamble and win dishonorably.  That he managed to lose anyway—the final, unalterable proof that the universe has a sense of humor—was the perfect denouement to this most Sisyphean of presidential odysseys.  He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

The truth is that McCain wouldn’t have won the 2008 election no matter what he did, and this had very little to do with him.  After eight years of George W. Bush—a member of McCain’s party, with approval ratings below 30 percent in his final months—the thrust of history was simply too strong for anyone but a Democrat to prevail that November.  (Since 1948, only once has the same party won three presidential elections in a row.)

If McCain was ever going to become president, it would’ve been in 2000.  Pre-9/11, pre-Iraq War and post-Bill Clinton, a colorful, self-righteous veteran could’ve wiped the floor with a stiff, boring policy wonk like Al Gore.

Why didn’t he get that chance?  The official explanation (as mentioned) is the reprehensible smear campaign Team Bush unloaded in the South Carolina primary.  However, the more complete answer is that Republican primary voters throughout the country simply didn’t view McCain as one of their own.  Compared to Bush—a born-again Christian with an unambiguously conservative record—McCain was a quasi-liberal apostate who called Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance” and seemed to hold a large chunk of the GOP base in bemused contempt.

McCain’s problem, in other words, was the primary system itself, in which only the most extreme and partisan among us actually participate, thereby disadvantaging candidates who—whether through their ideas or their character—might appeal to a wider, more ideologically diverse audience later on.  Recent casualties of this trend include the likes of John Kasich and John Huntsman on the right to John Edwards and (arguably) Bernie Sanders on the left.

On the other hand, sometimes primary voters will do precisely the opposite by selecting nominees whom they perceive to be the most “electable”—a strategy that, in recent decades, has produced an almost perfect record of failure, from John Kerry to Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton.

By being his best self in 2000 and his worst self in 2008, McCain managed to fall into both traps and end up nowhere.  Indeed, he may well have been a victim of bad timing more than anything else—as was, say, Chris Christie by not running in 2012 or Hillary Clinton by not running in 2004.

Then again, all of history is based on contingencies, and it is the job of the shrewd politician to calibrate his strengths to the tenor of the moment without sacrificing his core identity.  However appealing he may be in a vacuum, he must be the right man at the right time—the one thing Barack Obama and Donald Trump had in common.

As Brian Wilson would say, maybe John McCain just wasn’t made for these times.  Maybe he wasn’t elected president because America didn’t want him to be president.  Maybe his purpose in life was to be exactly what he was:  A fiery renegade senator who drove everybody a little crazy and loved every minute of it.  Maybe he wouldn’t have been any good as commander-in-chief anyhow—too impulsive, too hawkish—and maybe we’re better off not knowing for sure.

Will someone of McCain’s ilk ever rise to the nation’s highest office in the future?  Wouldn’t it be nice if they did?