John McCain meant well. Is that still something Americans care about?

  • One reason Sen. John McCain was so popular was the cross-aisle sense that McCain meant well and sought to make his country better.
  • Giving politicians credit for meaning well has fallen out of fashion.
  • Meaning well is not everything – but it’s still important.

Sen. John McCain, who died Saturday at age 81, was consistently much more popular than John McCain’s policy ideas.

One driver of McCain’s high popularity was his heroic sacrifice for the country in the Vietnam War. His charming personality and sense of humour also helped (though the latter could severely backfire at times). And the media certainly appreciated McCain’s extreme availability to the media.

But there was also an important sense across much of the spectrum that McCain meant well. McCain lived a life of service, and he sought to make his country better. When he was wrong, he was sincerely wrong.

Is that important? Well, that’s a central question in American politics today.

‘Meaning well’ as a distraction from doing good

Why might it be bad to care whether politicians and officials “mean well”?

One objection comes mostly from the left, and you can see it in the furious reaction to anyone who says something nice about the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s personal character – that he is a good mentor to diverse classes of law clerks, or that he’s well liked in the soccer carpool.

The idea here is that focusing on personal character amounts to taking the eye off the ball: When you give someone credit for being a nice guy, you give him room to make policy decisions you oppose.

And this was one of the left’s biggest complaints about McCain over the years: that his positive personal reputation got him undue political popularity and an unearned reputation as a “maverick” despite his fairly ordinary conservative record on policymaking.

(In his last year in office, McCain’s dramatic vote to block the Republican healthcare-repeal effort did move his substantive legislative track record significantly closer to the “maverick” reputation.)

I think this critique of meaning well is partially correct and partially misguided.

Definitely, you shouldn’t put someone on the Supreme Court just because his neighbours say he is nice. Nor should McCain have been elected president over Barack Obama just because of his war service or just because he was fun to hang out with on a campaign bus.

But suppose everyone in the soccer carpool thought Kavanaugh was a jerk. Wouldn’t that be useful information to know? Being personally good isn’t a sufficient condition for confirmation to the Supreme Court, but it is a necessary one. Therefore, we need to discuss whether nominees meet the condition.

The same is true for elected officials.

Does ‘meaning well’ mean not being selfish enough?

The other critique of “meaning well” comes from the right, and it’s an impulse that got us President Donald Trump.

Well-meaning leaders have made a lot of significant mistakes over the past 20 years. McCain was a cheerleader of some of those mistakes, including the Iraq War. This has led to a significant degree of sometimes warranted cynicism about politicians who appear to mean well.

And for some conservatives, there is a sense that meaning well means being altruistic on the public’s behalf. While McCain’s politics were driven in large part by global concerns – a desire to promote democracy and political freedom around the world, a desire to admit immigrants who can benefit from entry to the US – Trump explicitly rejects those concerns and promises to be “greedy” on behalf of his supporters.

Under this view, Trump’s personality defects aren’t defects at all. His voters wanted a jerk, and they got one. They think meaning well just makes you a cuck.

This is the likely source of the president’s barely concealed contempt for McCain. All this praise of McCain’s good character feels like an implicit rebuke of the president for being immoral and vulgar.Trump likes criminals and thieves and lowlifes. He wants to be praised for his flaws, not be compared to someone who was tortured for his country.

It is important to have leaders who mean well – and who do good

What the left and right critiques of good intentions have in common is that both warn against coming to admire politicians with whom you disagree. Liberals warn you those politicians may act against your interests; conservatives warn they may give away your stuff.

But there is a problem with a scorched-earth politics that says not to like your opponents: We all have to share one government and one society. And if we convince ourselves never to find the good in the people we disagree with, lest that distract us from our continuous efforts to defeat and bury them, we are likely to become miserable.

That’s because we won’t always succeed at defeating and burying our political opponents. They will win, and we will have to be able to stand living under them.

The key is striking a balance: Acknowledging the good in our opponents in a way that makes it easier for us to live together under governments that change from one party to the other, without giving up the drive to win those elections.

But we can only have that kind of politics when we have politicians who are deserving of a kind of cross-aisle admiration, in the way that Barack Obama is and John McCain was. It obviously is never going to work with the current president.

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