Sacrificed for an image

John McCain is getting ready for a tough fall campaign and has apparently decided that as part of his preparation, many of those who have gotten him to where he is are going to have to go.

The senator obviously takes great pride in his image as an “independent maverick.” He is willing not only to cross the aisle to work with Democrats and liberals on issues of common interest, but to abandon his friends and fellow Republicans when he’s convinced they’re wrong.

It’s an image that, in the current atmosphere, is an asset of incalculable value. In fact, it is this independent image that underlies his strength in head-to-head polls against this fall’s likely Democratic nominee.

What is becoming clear is that McCain not only understands the importance of his image, but is almost infuriatingly willing to do anything to protect or enhance it. Indeed, at times he seems to revel in doing so. He seems, for example, to find it incredibly difficult to speak to supporters or would-be supporters without hinting that he doesn’t really like them all that much and disagrees with them on various fundamental issues. Whether this will work in the long run remains to be seen, but it’s a strategy he’s pursuing with a vengeance.

Successful politicians often combine a stubborn idealism with a single-minded ruthlessness that can shock even their most ardent supporters, and this is certainly the case with McCain.

During the course of the last week McCain has been publicly forcing many of his strongest, earliest and most devoted supporters out of the campaign, throwing them under the proverbial bus to protect his image as the enemy of lobbyists and the Washington culture they represent.

It’s been ugly and unfair to many of his loyalist backers and must have others wondering whether they’re next.

In politics as in life, perception often trumps reality. John McCain is widely perceived as an anti-establishment Washington reformer when he has in fact been a part of the Washington establishment for longer than most of those who will vote this fall have been alive. His national campaigns have been run and financed by his friends and those whose concerns have resonated with him in the Senate.

Many of these friends are, well, lobbyists, who have worked with him, raised money for him, and come to admire him over the years. They made up the core of his support against governor and candidate George W. Bush eight years ago and stuck with him in the darkest days of this year’s campaign. Indeed, had it not been for his lobbyist friends, John McCain would not be where he is today.

There is no hint that any of these folks have done anything wrong. Indeed, some of them are apparently being sent packing because their firms took on clients four years ago for whom they didn’t even lobby personally and others because, since they lobbied for positions the candidate himself supported, his critics might charge that they influenced him.

So they have become something of an embarrassment. His insistence in the past that their presence shouldn’t be a problem because he doesn’t listen to them may be true since many who know him argue that he doesn’t listen to hardly anyone, but his opponents are beginning to use their presence to hack away at the image he likes to project, and that is something he won’t and perhaps can’t afford to tolerate. As a result, many of them are being quietly thanked for their service, led to the public square and politically executed for the greater good.

According to reports, those he still needs are being asked to make sure they are no longer registered as lobbyists, so he apparently believes in redemption for a few who will be able to escape their allegedly unsavory pasts and continue to work for him at least for as long as they’re needed.

The sad truth in politics is that for those on top, loyalty is all too often a one-way street. A candidate’s supporters are expected not only to be steadfast in their support regardless of what happens, but to be ready to sacrifice themselves, and often their reputations, if by doing so their candidate’s prospects can be enhanced.

In return, the candidate is required to do little and certainly can’t be expected to stand by a supporter who has become a problem.

McCain’s willingness to jettison friends and supporters who have done absolutely nothing wrong is not unique, but it is a little sad.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.