Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul (1600-1601); oil on canvas, cm 230 x 165;
Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popola, Rome

On the road to Damascus some thirty years after the death of Christ, Saul of Tarsus underwent his famous conversion experience. On his way to destroy a community of Christians, Saul was suddenly blinded by a brilliant light:

. . . suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” And I answered, “Who art thou, Lord?” And he said unto me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.” (Acts 22.6-8).

Once he regained his sight, Saul became the apostle now known as St. Paul, arguably the most influential of all the New Testament writers. Paul preached a doctrine of love: “Let love be without dissimulation” (Romans 12.9); “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12.18). And he was a cosmopolitan thinker, eager to embrace Jews and Gentiles both in the love of Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28).

john_mccain.jpgOn the road to St. Paul, some twenty-five years after first being elected to Congress, John McCain underwent a conversion experience, though unlike Paul he refused to admit it openly. The senator, famously open with the press, suddenly began to be close-mouthed and strictly on message. When questioned about this change by Time magazine (in an interview that the reporters described as “prickly”), he denied that anything was different. Even worse, instead of following his instincts and choosing a kindred spirit like Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, he kowtowed to the Republican Party’s “base” after being read the riot act by his advisors. John Heilemann describes it this way in a compelling article from New York Magazine on the aftermath of the Palin pick:

McCain’s preferred game-changer, by all accounts, was pro-choice, independent senator Joe Lieberman, who would enable him to reclaim his maverick status, distance himself from George W. Bush, and make a bid for moderate undecided voters. But then McCain was informed by Karl Rove and others that a pro-choice V.P. would never be affirmed at the GOP convention. With Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty deemed insufficiently transformative, McCain reached back and heaved the ball downfield in the direction of Sarah Palin.

How strange to watch the spectacle of the Republicans playing identity politics! The logic behind picking Palin was precisely the same logic that landed Clarence Thomas in the Supreme Court. And then, the representative of the party that had always criticized the Democrats for being in thrall to interest groups such as union, John McCain, introduced his running mate as someone who “was a union member and is
married to a union member and understands the problems, the hopes and
the values of working people.” Republicans accusing their opponents of being sexist and adopting the union mantle! It’s almost as bizarre as the concept of Christian porn!

sarah_palin.jpgPalin and the other speakers who preceded McCain at the Republican convention seemed to doing their best to be reigniting the culture wars. And, then, emulating not St. Paul but St. Peter, McCain denied them.

McCain’s acceptance speech evoked the pre-conversion John McCain, the so-called maverick who often challenged the Republican Party. He lashed out at “the constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems
isn’t a cause, it’s a symptom. It’s what happens when people go to
Washington to work for themselves and not you.” Had he not heard the rancorous speeches that took place for three straight days at the podium where he was standing?

The conduct of the McCain campaign in the days following the St. Paul convention suggest that his conversion to the ways of Rove and company is real. Indeed, the McCainites seem bent on outdoing the Bushies at their own game. As Paul Krugman laments in today’s New York Times:

And now the team that hopes to form the next administration is running a campaign that makes Bush-Cheney 2000 look like something out of a civics class. What does that say about how that team would run the country?

What it says, I’d argue, is that the Obama campaign is wrong to suggest that a McCain-Palin administration would just be a continuation of Bush-Cheney. If the way John McCain and Sarah Palin are campaigning is any indication, it would be much, much worse.

St. Paul preached a doctrine of love without dissimulation. The McCain campaign is practicing something else.

Does John McCain truly believe that he can send Sarah Palin out to the reddest states to rally the base by excoriating Democrats, while he campaigns as a maverick Republican and preaches the virtues of bipartisanship? That might have worked back in the day when an another under-50 former state legislator from Illinois was running for president — yes, I mean Abraham Lincoln — but in this day of the internet and the 24-hour-news cycle, it’s hard to believe that such a strategy could work.

Then, again, there seems to be some other logic than rationalism at work here. At times it seems like the logic of Calvinist predestination. More often, it seems like the logic that produced the recent film Swing Vote, in which a single New Mexico voter named Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) decides who becomes President of the United States.


Kevin Costner as Bud Johnson in Swing Vote (2008)

As far as I’m concerned, the Republicans’ current narrative is even more outlandish than Swing Vote‘s. The narrative hoops through which the movie jumped testify to the difficulty of crafting a story in which a fading political demographic — white, working-class male voters who don’t really care about the issues underlying presidential politics — could be made to matter enough to decide an election. The Republicans’ narrative is trying to demonstrate something similar.

A lot is depending on whether those voters do matter enough to decide the election. I find myself hoping that they won’t, that the new voters brought in by the Obama campaign’s voter registration drives will be the ones to decide the elections. But if it does come down to the Bud Johnsons of America, I hope that they make the choice that Bud does: to stop being a “dumb-ass” (that’s a quote from the film) and to start thinking long and hard about the issues that actually are affecting our country rather than the sideshows that the Republicans are creating. I want to believe that they will make that choice, before it is too late. Would that be too much of a Hollywood ending?