by Melissa Hahn
- USA -
John McCain is the one constant in my life, elected for the first time the year that I was born. Voters from Arizona continue to re-elect him by a landslide, and yet most citizens would be hard-pressed to tell you what, exactly, he has done for the state.
Hardly a public figure, McCain is associated with Arizona by commentators in a way that locals would never consider. Calling himself a Washington outsider, he actually is one in Arizona. McCain moved here upon his second marriage and through Cindy, the daughter of an influential Phoenix magnate, he acquired the connections and resources to fund a political campaign. Residing here barely long enough to qualify for the ballot, he soon returned to his real comfort zone: the Beltway.
Emerging from the Keating 5 scandal in the early 1990s, McCain has since regarded his adopted state warily. While many commentators wrote off his career, he survived thanks to a sympathetic and fawning local media, an ability to stay on message, and the cultivation of an image as a man above the fray. Specifically, he crafted a public persona of a straight-talking, no-nonsense moral figure, forever above reproach because of his record as a POW.
A very cautious Maverick
Consciously using his Senate seat as a stepping-stone to the Oval Office, the self-described maverick has made surprisingly few controversial decisions. In fact, he has largely avoided making any major decisions at all. Exceedingly cautious, McCain sticks out his political neck only when he can predict the outcome or sound bite.
“I cannot think of one vote or position that John McCain has taken that was the deciding one,” writes resident Diane Palmer in a recent letter to The Arizona Republic editor.
A review of his voting record on the site Project Vote Smart reveals a startling number of non-votes since 1995. In the category of “Budget, Spending and Taxes,” he abstained from voting an astonishing sixty-two times (42%). Despite Arizona’s great potential in solar power, he chose not to vote on an alternative energy tax incentive. Despite our sizable retirement community, he chose not to vote on the 2008 Medicare bill. And despite our dire housing foreclosure rates, he chose not to vote on Housing Foreclosure Assistance. Curiously, he also abstained on this year’s Defense Appropriations bills, the GI Bill extension and funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.Supporters of McCain could argue that he was unable to vote on these bills because they occurred during the peak of his presidential campaign. However, his record shows a consistent pattern of abstention from nearly all bills that could be construed in a politically-damaging way. He voted against a raise for Congress and in support for campaign finance reform not because he is a “bipartisan maverick” but because they make excellent talking-points in upcoming campaigns. Similarly, he voted to ban flag desecration three times, to prohibit funds to groups that perform abortions, for a tax reconciliation bill, and to declare English as the national language.
He has meanwhile avoided taking a stand on nearly every substantial political decision of our time, consistently declining to vote on bills addressing energy, agriculture, immigration, guest worker programs, student loans, health care, consumer protections, drug import labeling, bankruptcy reform, foreign intelligence surveillance, the implementation of the 9/11 commission’s recommendations, REAL ID funding, low-income energy assistance, Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization, the border fence, customs appropriations, and bridge repair funding.
He was further unable to decide whether to vote for capping carbon emissions, immunity for telecom companies that spied on domestic consumers under the Patriot Act, equal pay, juvenile crime policies, emergency Department of Defense supplements, student loan lender subsidy cuts, or blood alcohol mandates.
He equally has no opinion on education savings accounts, increased taxes on business profits, water resources development, nuclear waste policy, funding for AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis; Mexican trucking within US borders, Iran missile sanctions, or Saddam Hussein’s war crimes. He wasn’t even sure if he should vote yes or no on the nomination of General Petraeus as the Military Leader of the Middle East.
Far from being a maverick leader shaking up Washington politics, he has merely occupied one of Arizona’s Senatorial spots in absentia as he campaigned repeatedly for the White House.
Thriving on voter apathy
Unfortunately, while he’s focusing on staying afloat between presidential cycles, Arizona flounders at the bottom. For 25 years, a combination of intractable social problems, voter apathy and an “every-man-for-himself” political psychology has strapped us to this do-nothing politician. McCain is able to survive because residents aren’t attached enough to the state to care whether we have quality representation or not.
Phoenix remains the quintessential boom town. Defined by a culture of opportunism and capitalism, it lures new residents with year-round sunshine, inexpensive housing and the chance to live unencumbered by cosmopolitanism and social grace. It is an anti-social paradise, with barely half the nation’s average population density. We are fundamentally un-rooted: only 44% of Arizonans lived in the same house throughout a five-year period through 2000 compared to 54.1% nationally (2000 US Census). Consequently, civic engagement is nil, social responsibility nonexistent.
Not surprisingly, with our low high school and college diploma rates, we rank 38th in income. Few career options exist outside of home construction, tourism, and mining; violent crime, car theft and identity theft are all high. In the wealthiest county, 20% of children subsist below the poverty line; on the Native American reservations, it is up to 50%. Corresponding levels of children lack basic health insurance. Clearly, our state has substantial problems, but barring real leadership and increased voter participation, solutions will remain elusive.Scripps Howard News Service reports that Arizona ranked last - tied with Hawaii - for participation in the 1996 and 2000 elections. Only 40% of eligible citizens statewide voted, compared to 67% in Minnesota. The future looks only marginally brighter: the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement reports that Arizona ranked 37th in the nation in 2004 for youth voter participation (ages 18-29). In that election, only 46% of youth cast a vote.
Even more disconcerting, Latinos - 30% of the youth population here, compared to less than 15% nationally - voted at only half the rate of White youth. This trend is consistent with their parents’ participation. In 2006, only 9% of all eligible Latinos cast a vote, compared to 15% in 1994.
The most incendiary political issue in Arizona is immigration but without greater participation, it is unlikely that our growing immigrant population will find a political voice to represent their concerns. Compounding matters is a voter-backed proposition requiring government-issued photo ID at the polls. A culture of intimidation, led by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s racially-profiled crime sweeps, only increases their alienation.
A Republican State
With low voter turn-out, our state continues to be dominated by a far-right core unrepresentative of our changing demographics. Yet even moderates are more inclined to vote Republican, seeing the Democrats as a liberal, elitist sideshow. We value frank speech, and have little patience for “political correctness” and eloquent vocabularies, making us disinclined to trust Democrats. McCain’s sharp tongue and sneers play very well here, as an abrasive personality is equated with strength, belligerence with integrity.
As Arizonan J.A. Jance writes in the Washington Post, we are a quirky and stubborn state, with a history of political obstinacy and thumbing our noses at the political establishment. One of the only states to refuse to sign the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday into law, we similarly refrain from participating in Daylight Savings simply because we don’t want to. Fundamentally, we resent anyone telling us what to do, even if they might be right.
Accordingly, we admire anyone seen to “stand alone.” Without taking the time to research McCain’s absentee voting record, Arizonans buy into the media hype that McCain is a modern-day wild-west rebel.
Amanda is a student working at a local coffee shop. She plans on voting for McCain because “he has so much more experience than Obama.” Adding that she likes his reputation as a maverick, she also gushes about his running mate. “There’s a chain email going around showing Palin on a motorcycle. I love that! She is a strong woman who says what she thinks and isn’t afraid to upset people.”
Diane Palmer, however, adds a cautionary note to her letter. “A maverick is not a follower, but (he) is not a leader, either.”
McCain’s self-proclaimed status as a Maverick is precisely the reason Arizonans continue to elect him. He may not be accomplishing much, but that’s the way we like it.
Photo by flickr user Photo Mojo used under Creative Commons licenses. - Ed.
About the Author
Melissa Hahn is a freelance writer and world traveler whose projects include foreign affairs analysis, children's literature, and creative nonfiction. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, she completed her B.A. in Russian Area Studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and is currently a graduate student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. She is an associate analyst at The Power and Interest Report and currently writes for the English-language edition of the Pan-Korean Peacemaking Webzine.
A photojournalist and amateur artist, Melissa aims to bring small joys to people's lives and to enable Americans to release their fear of the rest of the world. Through her works, she hopes to inspire her readers to seize the day and experience the wonder of humanity that exists both around the globe and in their own backyards.