The remarkable performance of John McCain in the past few months has rightly garnered a lot of attention. Time was, not so long ago, when he was just one of several contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, along with Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson, and not necessarily the front-runner at that. His support for illegal immigrants had turned off a lot of conservative Republicans, and his general reputation as a maverick didn't help, either.
And yet, before so much as a single primary has been held, one after another of his rivals has dropped from contention, and today McCain stands alone as the inevitable nominee of his party. That fact is primarily attributable to his sheer steadfastness. Say what you will about him, there is clearly a man there -- a determined, thoughtful and generally attractive candidate with a formidable record as a military hero. The Democrats, who are still locked in an unseemly brawl between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, recognize McCain as the man they will have to beat, and they know very well that it won't be easy.
This is all the more remarkable because, in the almost unanimous view of political observers, 2008 ought to be a "Democratic year." The Republicans have held the White House for the past seven (soon to be eight), and controlled Congress for all but two of them. They have embroiled the nation in an unpopular war in Iraq, and while the economy isn't as badly off as the Democrats and their media supporters like to assert, it is teetering on the brink of a recession. By all odds, the outcome in November favors the Democrats -- or would, if McCain weren't doing so devilishly well. Recent polls show him running neck and neck with either Clinton or Obama.
There is no point in exaggerating his strength. It seems almost certain that the Democrats will continue to control Congress after November, even if McCain manages to claim the presidency. But the wonder is that McCain is in contention at all. By rights he should have little more chance of winning the presidency than his fellow Republicans have of controlling Congress.
In addition to McCain's undeniable appeal, one factor working against the Democrats is almost surely the relative weakness of their possible candidates.
Clinton and Obama are not instantly dismissible as presidential contenders, but both have obvious shortcomings. Neither has a military record worthy of the name. And neither has ever held an executive office (e.g. governor) in the arena of politics. Of the two, Clinton has served longer in the Senate, but neither she nor Obama has left any significant mark there. And McCain has been a senator for 22 years -- nearly twice as long as both of them combined. And yet the grim fact is that McCain, if indeed he is the Republican nominee, will be running in a year when the very stars in their courses seem set against a Republican victory. I mentioned earlier that the GOP suffers the very serious burden of an unpopular war. Yet McCain has made support for that war one of his major issues. Credit him with immense courage for doing so -- I happen to believe he is absolutely right -- but there is simply no denying that his support for the Iraq war will be an almost certain liability when he is running against a Democratic candidate pledged to pull us out of that conflict as soon as possible.
Add to that the aforementioned fact that 2008 is a likely Democratic year in any event, and one begins to perceive the dimensions of the mountain McCain is going to have to climb.
One can point to a few hopeful signs. Above all, there is the fact that McCain has gotten as far as he has. He has also trimmed his support for illegal immigrants and pledged to preserve President Bush's tax cuts. Republicans generally seem to have accepted him as their tiger and will work hard for his election. But I am sure he wishes this were some other year.