Friday, July 6, 2007

The De-Railing of John McCain

I am not a betting man, but I almost made one several months ago with a family member about the outcome of 2008 Presidential elections. I asserted that the nominees would be John McCain and Hillary Clinton, and that McCain would likely win--my theory being that the candidacy of Hillary Clinton would become the antidote to those religious conservatives unenthusiastic about McCain. I assumed matter-of-factly that McCain would receive the nomination, speculating that the average Republican primary voter would envision McCain as a preferable alternative to the others and especially Hillary Clinton. To date, my assumption about the nomination has proven to be shortsighted.

Up to this point, McCain is not doing particularly well. He has dropped to fifth place in the polls in Iowa and fallen completely out of contention in South Carolina and much of the other early primary states. Recently, he has fired dozens of campaign staff workers because he failed to meet initial fund raising expectations (falling millions short and behind fellow competitors Rudy Guiliani and Mitt Romney).

2000: Bucking the Party

Loyalty is a tricky thing. Quite often it goes unrewarded, especially after you have shown yourself in a different light, and when it is finally given some semblance of recognition it can be in the worst possible way. Such is the case with the McCain 2008 Presidential campaign.

When Senator McCain ran for the White House back in 2000, it was a very divergent experience from his contemporary woes. Running as an outsider, with his popularly entitled “Straight Talk Express” bus (that enthralled the fawning press who followed his every move), the Senator centered his strategy on courting disaffected independent and even Democratic voters. So enamored was the media by his campaign, I witnessed one of the most surreal devolutions in my life when Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes (the same man who rendered Barbara Streisand into whaling sobs during an interview) exhibited his admiration for McCain by reading a love poem that he wrote for him. You know you are receiving favorable treatment when you can get a 60 Minutes correspondent to write and then read a love poem on-air for your benefit.

Unfortunately for John McCain, party primaries are decided for the most part by people within the contested party. He virtually conceded the closed primary states from the start and was soundly defeated on Super Tuesday following his speech denouncing the Religious Right as a force of “evil” in the Republican Party and America at large. It was a gamble that paid off terribly, as he lost almost every Southern primary to the eventual nominee, George Bush.

2008: Lack of Conservative Allies

The 2008 Presidential campaign was supposed to be very different. If nothing else, McCain learned from his 2000 experience. This time, he was going to make certain that he received the support of the conservative base that he ran against eight years before. He initiated this courtship (or the “great suck up,” as Jon Stewart calls it) by meeting with Jerry Falwell, gaining the Reverend’s support for his 2008 run, and speaking out on abortion and other issues, where McCain held a longstanding, albeit comparatively quit, conservative voting record.

In addition, the Senator became an adherent of President Bush from the first months of his Administration, bolstering most every one of the President’s proposals (the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind Act, Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act, the attempt at Social Security reform [even going so far as to give stump speeches backing the privatization scheme], the Iraq War, and the recent immigration law). In fact, on every major piece of legislation, with the lone exception of his anti-torture amendment to the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Senator McCain has supported President Bush, often in the most vociferous way. This ran contrary to the very patronizing manner the Senator treated then-candidate and Governor Bush during the 2000 Presidential primaries and it has been not infrequently interpreted as a form of flattery in anticipation of the 2008 campaign, in which McCain wanted to ensure his ties to the Administration and the conservative base that helped re-elect President Bush in 2004.

This congruence with the Administration has gone mostly unnoticed to conservative activists within the party. Their memories of 2000 are long. Most damaging, McCain lost his biggest backer amongst the ranks of the Religious Right this spring when Jerry Falwell departed to the hereafter with a corpulently-clogged ticker. His relationship with the remaining leaders of the religious conservative community, particularly James Dobson (founder of Focus on the Family) and Pat Robertson (one of the pioneers of televangelism), remains conflictual--with Dobson going so far as to declare that no true Christian could in good conscience vote for the Arizona Senator. That is hardly a ringing endorsement.

The aforementioned notwithstanding, when the history of this campaign is written and the death knell, if it proves to be so, of the McCain for President encapsulated, it likely will be interpreted when the Senator came out in favor of the Administration’s Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. With the support of Senator Ted Kennedy, La Raza, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, as well as the Chamber of Commerce, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act typified the inside-the-beltway consensus that the Senator ran against in 2000. More ominously, it was a piece of legislation that engendered the ire of the conservative base of the party, leading to intense lobbying efforts by right-wing radio talk shows, conservative activists, and even members within the Republican Congressional delegation (most of whom opposed the bill as an “amnesty” for over 12 million illegal immigrants). As a result, the legislation failed to make it out of the Senate to the Joint Committee twice in a span of a few months, further damaging not only the fortunes and popularity of the President (who is being rapidly deserted by the people who elected him only a few years ago), but those Republicans that supported the immigration law--most prominent among them Senator John McCain. Consequently, his poll numbers in every primary state has precipitously decreased in the last two months (in the case of Iowa, his poll numbers have fallen from the mid 20s to single digits).

Accordingly, McCain’s lack of support from the party’s conservative base is reified by the current and past--namely, the negative memories of his 2000 campaign and recent collaboration with Senator Ted Kennedy on President Bush’s immigration bill. It is one of the strangest paradoxes that McCain treated his snubbing by the Republican leadership following the 2000 campaign with near sycophancy in mirroring the policies of the man he once compared to an overgrown child. To show that no good deed goes unpunished, President Bush rewarded that fidelity with an immigration bill he knew was going to divide the party between its business-backed elites and conservative base. Thus, McCain’s devotion to President Bush on his legislative proposals may have sealed the doom of his 2008 Presidential campaign.

Where Have All the Liberals and Independents Gone?

Another in the long list of continuing quandaries for the Senator’s campaign is his position on the Iraq War. Next to Joe Lieberman, and maybe George Bush himself, McCain has identified his foreign policy views with his support for the war in Iraq (an issue that did not exist in 2000). He has rhetorically lambasted a military pullout as “defeatist” and more than once challenged the patriotism of those who oppose the recent “surge” strategy of the Administration in Iraq. Regrettably for John McCain, this too has gone unappreciated by his party’s base, and it has had the corollary effect of costing him many votes from prospective non-Republican voters in open primary states--the very same type of voters he appealed to in 2000.

One could counter that these positions show a certain principle and stick-to-itiveness, especially on the issue of Iraq, but in terms of practical politics it is dissipating the support for his Presidential campaign. What makes this so pertinent and vital now than during the early stages of past Presidential campaigns is the front-loading of primaries following the 2000 elections. By late February 2008, over 20 states (and over half of the delegates needed to gain the nomination in one of the parties) will be chosen in primary and caucus elections (with most of those on February 8, the new “Super Duper Tuesday”). What this means is that Presidential campaigns are starting earlier, at least a year from the primaries, just to raise the money it will necessitate to afford the ads and campaigns in so many states in such a brief period of time.

Long Way to the Oval Office

Falling behind in money, his own party’s base, and those people who were more apt to vote for his candidacy eight years ago, McCain’s Presidential campaign is in trouble. Nevertheless, it would be premature to announce its death. For those old enough to recall the 1992 campaign, everyone figured Bill Clinton’s campaign finished before the New Hampshire primary when one of the Governor’s mistresses (Gennifer Flowers) released details of her amorous relationship with him. He finished second to Paul Tsongus and went on to win the party’s nomination in the Southern primaries later on in the campaign (and ultimately the Oval Office from an incumbent President whose popularity ratings were over 90% less than a two years before).

It is not impossible or even improbable for McCain to come back in this campaign. His two main competitors, Guiliani and Romney, have their own ideological credential dilemmas with conservatives. McCain can rightly say he was opposed to abortion long before Romney and his views on most issues are far more conservative than Guiliani’s. While it may be a mystery how a pro-abortion, pro-gun control New Yorker and ex-Governor of Massachusetts, who alters his views on issues extremely important to religiously-motivated voters, could ever receive the Republican Party nomination for the Presidency, this is as much a testament to the lack of a conservative frontrunner in the GOP, and McCain’s inability to garner that conservative patronage, as well as Guiliani’s status as “America’s Mayor” for his role of being the accidental office holder of a city attacked on 9/11. It is probably not going to last, particularly as Guiliani’s positions on social issues and Romney’s evolving views on abortion are exposed.

To put it another way, the Republican Presidential field is so weak, one of its hypothesized frontrunners is a character actor from Hollywood, who refused to run for a second full term in the US Senate five years ago because of “burnout,” and has yet to even announce his candidacy. And this is a candidate who not only endorsed John McCain in 2000, but became one of the campaign’s national co-chairmen. Further compounding Thompson’s chances are his view, or perceived view, on the issue of abortion. When Thompson ran for the Senate, he did so as a pro-choice and moderate candidate and has previously stated in past surveys that he would not seek to “criminalize abortion. This may matter little to people not motivated by such an issue, but it is one that is paramount to a majority of Republican voters. It is the principal reason why Tom Ridge, ex-Governor of Pennsylvania, had to settle for being the first Director of the Office of Homeland Security, instead of George Bush’s choice for Vice President back in 2000.

To summate, McCain’s predicament with his party’s base is one shared by the other major competitors. It is not unlikely that he could come back in this campaign. However, if McCain is to become 2008’s “comeback kid” (as Clinton was in 1992 after New Hampshire), he is going to have to reappear on the primary frontrunner horizon much sooner than previous nominees. Because of the frontloading of primaries, time is not on the Senator’s side. Also, as objectionable as the other frontrunners may be to the conservative base of the party, none of them have a track record of enmity towards that base as Senator McCain provoked in his last Presidential run.

It remains an open issue whether or not the conservative activists and voters will turn on to McCain in sufficient numbers to allow him the nomination. Either way, we will find out quicker than past candidates, almost certainly before the first vote is cast in New Hampshire in January. When Phil Gramm and John Kasich ran their disastrous Presidential campaigns for the Republican Party (Gramm in 1996 and Kasich in 2000), they never even made it to the primaries, and this was before half of the delegates for the nomination were chosen before mid-February. So, whatever comes of the McCain Presidential campaign, it will be decided long before the New Year.

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