Katrina has indeed altered our political landscape: For the first time in years, conservatives have listened to Arizona Sen. John McCain talk about a high-profile domestic issue and have nodded their heads vigorously. The maverick Republican made his reputation by bucking his own party, especially its conservative base, and, after his failed 2000 nomination bid, seemed to want to make a career out of it. Democrats fantasized about a Kerry-McCain ticket in 2004, as McCain occupied his own little world of resentment at how the 2000 nomination had supposedly been stolen from him and of a “progressive” Republicanism at times difficult to distinguish from Democratic orthodoxy.
After Katrina and the countless billions of dollars that began pouring toward the Gulf Coast, conservatives clamored for spending offsets elsewhere in the budget, and there was McCain right there with them, excoriating pork-barrel spending (as he always has) and calling for repeal of the massive new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement. In a major battle between conservatives in Congress who want to cut spending and the party’s leadership, which is — to put it mildly — unenthusiastic about the prospect, McCain is with the conservative rebels.
This is so important because, if he runs, McCain is probably the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. But he’s an odd front-runner, a front-runner whose campaign is almost certainly doomed unless he handles conservatives better than he did in 2000. McCain will come out of the gate with formidable assets, among them near-universal name recognition, media adulation and credibility as a serious candidate. But if he again lets another major candidate get to his right on nearly everything — as he let President Bush in 2000 — his campaign will again attract independents, but not the Republicans who are by definition necessary to win the Republican nomination.
So McCain is in a different game from other potential candidates. They need money, media attention, and insider buzz. McCain needs the Right to stop loathing him, and he seems to realize it.
When McCain went out on the campaign trail with Bush — whom he held in contempt for years after 2000 — and gave him bearhugs, it was clear that the senator’s presidential ambitions hadn’t died. It is hard to believe that those hugs were heart-felt. Indeed, McCain’s campaign will strain his capacities for insincerity. If a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience, a second McCain presidential campaign, to be successful, will have to be the triumph of experience over the candidate’s own predilections.
McCain’s natural constituency is the bookers on Hardball With Chris Matthews, or any other public-affairs show; he is “controversial,” while usually managing to say what the media wants to hear. In 2000, it became clear his grand goal was to blow up the current Republican coalition and craft something new, although it was left vague what exactly. He has never demonstrated great affection for social conservatives, whom he blasted in 2000. But he can work around these things. He recently endorsed teaching Intelligent Design in schools, although he probably has as much sympathy for this critique of evolution as the New York Times editorial board does.
McCain will be the strongest performing Republican against Hillary Clinton in early opinion polls; if anything, he is more aggressive on the war on terror than Bush is; he will have a strong theme of returning to a cleaner Republicanism after the ethical lapses of the current congressional majority. And all of this will be wrapped in his appealing thematic mix of patriotism, sacrifice and duty.
The problem for McCain is that he has such a richly layered history of apostasy, including on conservative gospel like the Bush tax cuts. Some of it is of recent vintage, for instance the enforcement-less immigration bill he is co-sponsoring with Ted Kennedy. A strong conservative candidate who unites the Right can take him down. But for that candidate, the less conservatives nod their heads at anything McCain has to say, the better.