Tuesday, October 7, 2008

WWMD (What Would a Maverick Do?)

If Sarah Palin had one word to describe John McCain it would be "maverick":

In the actual debate (I know, it's hard to tell the difference), she used the word "maverick" 6 times. The message is that John McCain doesn't run with the herd; he ruffles feathers in both parties in order to get the job done. Is this reputation deserved? Fortunately, this is something that can be measured.

Brendan Nyhan points us to work by Kieth Poole and Howard Rosenthal of UC-San Diego. According to them:
There are, to be sure, occasional mavericks in Congress... John McCain (R-AZ), normally one of the very most conservative members of the Senate, has been the worst fitting member of the Senate in each of his eight Senates, most notably the 103rd (2001-02), where he frequently voted with the Democrats, perhaps in pique over losing the race for the presidential nomination in 2000.
They go on to note, however, that McCain's "maverick-status" has changed over the years:
In our dynamic model, very rapid shifts are foreclosed by our imposition of the restriction that individual movement can only be linear in time. This restriction fails to capture a few cases. For example, John McCain (R-AZ) started as a conservative, became a moderate after losing the Republican nomination to George Bush in 2000, and recently reemerged as very conservative.
So according to the data, McCain (on average) is very conservative, but his voting is highly variable. Poole and Rosenthal accurately describe him as an "occasional maverick". More cynically, Bryan Caplan suggests that this has been a long-term strategic decision on McCain's part:
Is this just coincidence? Is being an outlier a smart way to get national attention? My guess is that being an outlier is just a high-variance strategy that happened to pay off.
So where does the term "maverick" come from, anyway? According to John Schwartz, writing in the New York Times:
In the 1800s, Samuel Augustus Maverick went to Texas and became known for not branding his cattle. He was more interested in keeping track of the land he owned than the livestock on it, Ms. Maverick said; unbranded cattle, then, were called “Maverick’s.” The name came to mean anyone who didn’t bear another’s brand.
What's more interesting is the Maverick family's legacy:

Sam Maverick’s grandson, Fontaine Maury Maverick, was a two-term congressman and a mayor of San Antonio who lost his mayoral re-election bid when conservatives labeled him a Communist. He served in the Roosevelt administration on the Smaller War Plants Corporation and is best known for another coinage. He came up with the term “gobbledygook” in frustration at the convoluted language of bureaucrats.

This Maverick’s son, Maury Jr., was a firebrand civil libertarian and lawyer who defended draft resisters, atheists and others scorned by society. He served in the Texas Legislature during the McCarthy era and wrote fiery columns for The San Antonio Express-News. His final column, published on Feb. 2, 2003, just after he died at 82, was an attack on the coming war in Iraq.

For roughly 400 years, the Maverick family name has been synonomous with American liberalism and progressive ideals. And unsurprisingly, Terrellita Maverick (Murry Maverick Jr.'s sister) is unhappy with her family's name being used to describe John McCain:

Considering the family’s long history of association with liberalism and progressive ideals, it should come as no surprise that Ms. Maverick insists that John McCain, who has voted so often with his party, “is in no way a maverick, in uppercase or lowercase.”

“It’s just incredible — the nerve! — to suggest that he’s not part of that Republican herd. Every time we hear it, all my children and I and all my family shrink a little and say, ‘Oh, my God, he said it again.’ ”

“He’s a Republican,” she said. “He’s branded.”

You can't make this stuff up.

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