In Anthony Trollope's wonderfully witty novel, Barchester Towers, there occurs a description of a party being held by a respected member of an ancient and venerable family. Miss Thorne of Ullathorne is the hostess, and the guests include both the noble and wealthy, and the obscure and poor. Of course, the nobility is invited to the house; the more humble guests will disport themselves picnic-style beyond a "ha-ha," or sunken fence. Trollope describes one of the difficulties of planning such a party this way:
In the first place there was a dreadful line to be drawn. Who were
to dispose themselves within the ha-ha, and who without? To this
the unthinking will give an off-hand answer, as they will to every
ponderous question. Oh, the bishop and such-like within the ha-ha,
and Farmer Greenacre and such-like without. True, my unthinking
friend, but who shall define these such-likes? It is in such
definitions that the whole difficulty of society consists. To seat
the bishop on an arm-chair on the lawn and place Farmer Greenacre at
the end of a long table in the paddock is easy enough, but where will
you put Mrs. Lookaloft, whose husband, though a tenant on the estate,
hunts in a red coat, whose daughters go to a fashionable seminary
in Barchester, who calls her farm-house Rosebank, and who has a
pianoforte in her drawing-room? The Misses Lookaloft, as they call
themselves, won't sit contented among the bumpkins. Mrs. Lookaloft
won't squeeze her fine clothes on a bench and talk familiarly about
cream and ducklings to good Mrs. Greenacre. And yet Mrs. Lookaloft
is no fit companion and never has been the associate of the Thornes
and the Grantlys.
I find myself in a similar dilemma, now that John McCain has begun to do so well in the primaries, and may yet secure the Republican nomination for the presidency.
All this time, I've been thinking of the Republican candidates as belonging to two distinct groups, as separate and different from each other as the social categories Trollope describes above. On the one hand, you have Romney, and suchlike; on the other, there is Ron Paul, and suchlike. If you had asked me, I might have further added Giuliani to the "Romney" group, the group of consummate corporate-style politicians representing money and the financial conservatives, and on the other I'd probably have included such names as Huckabee, Thompson, and Hunter as those more populist candidates who were strong social conservatives, but who didn't particularly represent the financial interests of the Wall Street wing of the Republican party.
But where does one put McCain? Who, as Trollope says, shall define these suchlikes? McCain can hardly be called a Washington outsider; he's had such a lengthy career in Washington that he's been a Senator longer than some of this year's youngest voters have been alive. He's certainly more pro-life than either Romney or Giuliani, but he supports federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. He's committed to continuing the war with Iraq, and years of inside-the-Beltway connections has made him a troubling mix of opportunistic cronyism and maverick independence. He's been widely criticized for McCain-Feingold, and the effects this has had on free speech; he has also been criticized for his personal life, which included a divorce from his first wife owing to an affair he was already carrying on with the woman who became his second, who is seventeen years younger than he is.
He can hardly be considered a big-money conservative, but he's not really a populist, either. Born in 1936, he would be our oldest elected president at a time when younger voters are beginning to be increasingly frustrated with the lack of attention paid to our concerns about the rising burden of Social Security; it is not too much to say that McCain grew up in a different world from most of us, a world where men could work for one company all their lives and women had the ability to stay home with their children without suffering economically for making this "choice."
Does John McCain understand the quiet desperation of the American family? Does McCain understand that plenty of us missed out on both the stock market and the housing boom, and are likely to struggle greatly in the coming economic bust? Does McCain realize that couples with two incomes are in debt over their heads while larger and larger chunks of their paychecks are confiscated to pay for the retirements of wealthy baby boomers? Does McCain hear the stories of chaos in the classroom and hopelessness in the hospital waiting room? Does McCain understand the cost of amnesty for illegals, and the rising conviction among middle-class Americans that we are being punished for being hardworking, law-abiding and responsible, while growing masses of freeloaders agitate for more and more government handouts and goodies?
I suspect that he does not. I suspect that John McCain is so far removed from the lives and hardships of ordinary Americans that he has more in common with Romney than the talking-heads on talk radio can even imagine. They are opposing McCain on the grounds that he won't do enough to protect poor defenseless corporations and ensure that the good times keep rollin', but I believe that he, a Washington insider from another generation, will guarantee the status quo as well as a Romney or Giuliani would. And suchlike.