An earlier tantrum

Back in February 2006, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain had a telling exchange of letters, as a reader of Talking Points Memo recently recalled. The letters are well worth reading, especially by anyone trying to puzzle out the rage that McCain has recently displayed and the less-than-constructive way he has displayed it (cf. his inability to look Obama in the eye during the first presidential debate and his defensive disputatiousness with editors of the Des Moines Register).

The story told by the letters is straightforward. On 1 February 2006, Obama attended at McCain’s invitation a bipartisan meeting to discuss lobbying and ethics reform. The next day, however, Obama sent McCain a letter thanking him for the invitation, praising McCain’s work on the issue, and announcing a bit of bad news: Obama had decided to support Senator Harry Reid’s bill on ethics reform, rather than participate in the bipartisan task force that McCain wanted to organize. Obama explained that Reid’s bill had many of the provisions that McCain had proposed and that it would be faster to send Reid’s bill straight to committee rather than wait for a McCain task force to come up with a bill, which would have to go through the same committee in the end.

It’s understandable that McCain would have been disappointed by the letter. By sticking with Reid, Obama made it likelier that Democrats could take credit for the resulting law, rather than McCain. But the rationale that Obama offered to McCain was not partisan. Obama argued that ethics reform would arrive faster if he backed Reid’s bill, and that there was no substantive difference between what Reid proposed and what McCain wanted.

McCain’s reaction must be read to be believed. On February 6, McCain wrote:

I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere. When you approached me and insisted that despite your leadership’s preference to use the issue to gain a political advantage in the 2006 elections, you were personally committed to achieving a result that would reflect credit on the entire Senate and offer the country a better example of political leadership, I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable. Thank you for disabusing me of such notions with your letter to me dated February 2, 2006, which explained your decision to withdraw from our bipartisan discussions. I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. Again, sorry for the confusion, but please be assured I won’t make the same mistake again.

In other words, McCain squalled like a jilted teenager. Maybe Obama was playing political hardball, but if so, he was playing like a gentleman: Obama’s letter had focused on what was best for ethics reform and had said only kind things about McCain’s motivations. McCain, on the other hand, seemed unable in his letter to rise above the slight that he felt. He imagined that Obama had attacked his motivations, when Obama hadn’t, and he attacked Obama’s motivations, which was churlish and petty. McCain ended his letter by writing that

I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party’s effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman Senator, and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness. Again, I have been around long enough to appreciate that in politics the public interest isn’t always a priority for every one of us.

In his reply, Obama was careful not to descend to McCain’s level. He simply expressed puzzlement and repeated that he appreciated McCain’s efforts on behalf of ethics reform. Obama:

I confess that I have no idea what has prompted your response. But let me assure you that I am not interested in typical partisan rhetoric or posturing. The fact that you have now questioned my sincerity and my desire to put aside politics for the public interest is regrettable but does not in any way diminish my deep respect for you nor my willingness to find a bipartisan solution to this problem.

Tacit in McCain’s epistolary tantrum is an acknowledgement that he wanted Obama’s support badly and was hurt when he didn’t get it. The outburst was a confession of weakness—of frustrated need. As such it was embarrassing, as McCain seems to have realized a couple of days later, when he insisted to reporters that there was nothing to the exchange, that “We’re moving on, we’re moving on, we’re moving on.”

But there is something to it. It suggests a lack of self-confidence in McCain. It reveals that his style of leadership is to lash out at those he feels are disloyal. It reveals that he’s a poor poker player: A cannier politician would have folded his cards without showing them, or might have tried to bluff Obama. It also shows up the hollowness of McCain’s moralism. The higher cause at issue here, ethics reform, turns out to matter to McCain only so long as he gets to march at the head of the parade. If he’s going to play any lesser role, he’s willing to sabotage exactly the bipartisan accord he claims to be after.