On Thursday, the king of the blogopshere Glenn Reynolds asked, “Is it my imagination, or is John McCain’s campaign unraveling all of a sudden?” In fairness to Glenn, the unraveling of the McCain campaign has been a painstaking process that’s been ongoing for over six years. While many people are making a sudden discovery of the Republican Party’s ill-feelings for the Arizona senator, the hostility is nothing new.
I wasn’t supposed to be this way. John McCain was supposed to the Republican front runner. And Republicans historically give the nomination to whoever’s “turn” it is. And yet by no conventional rendering can John McCain be understood to be the frontrunner at this juncture. He doesn’t have the most money, he doesn’t have the affection of party activists, and he’s trailing Rudy Giuliani in public opinion polls by dozens of points. Looking up at Giuliani in the polls, the Senator is likely asking himself, “Who am I? How did I get here?”
The McCain mutiny has been six years in the making. For almost the entire duration of the Bush administration, Senator McCain has seemingly gone out of his way to antagonize conservatives and Republicans. He teamed with one of the Senate’s most liberal members, Russ Feingold, to deliver a catastrophic piece of campaign finance reform. This move won the plaudits of the media, but got only catcalls from conservatives. In more recent days, McCain has attempted to outdo himself by teaming with longtime Republican bogeyman Ted Kennedy to craft an immigration bill.
Just this week, McCain has seemed determined to remind conservatives of every thumb in the eye he has delivered to the conservative community over the past six years. First, McCain made his announcement that he’s running for president on David Letterman’s show. Letterman, like most members of the media, adores McCain. But conservatives don’t adore Letterman, and find his show to be an odd venue for McCain to announce that he’ll be seeking their support.
As insult to injury, McCain skipped this week’s annual CPAC convention. Again. McCain always skips the CPAC convention. All the other Republican candidates, from the mighty Giuliani to the tiny Tancredo made the pilgrimage to seek CPAC’s support. McCain had a prior commitment.
IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. McCain could have gone the way of Bob Dole. In 1988, Dole lost the Republican nomination to George H.W. Bush, a man by all appearances he neither liked nor respected. Given Dole’s age at the time of his 1988 defeat, it seemed like his loss would forever thwart his presidential ambitions. What’s more, just as McCain’s defeat left him seething at George W. Bush, Dole similarly felt a member of the Bush family had dealt with him unfairly and dishonestly. One of the most enduring images of late 1980’s politics is Bob Dole snarling at George H.W. Bush, “Stop lying about my record,” on live TV.
Dole could have followed the same course that McCain did and spent the next several years finding original ways to stick it to the Republican president and the conservatives that helped elect him. Instead, Dole nobly carried out his role in he Senate. Even though he clearly didn’t like George H.W. Bush, he served his administration. As a consequence, Dole was able to get the Republican nomination when it next became his “turn” in 1996. This was in spite of his age and other factors working against him such as his inability to inspire or even basically communicate.
ON JOHN McCAIN’S APPEARANCE with David Letterman this week, there was a revealing moment where McCain discussed the vice presidency. McCain mentioned that he had been considered a possible veep nominee for both parties back in 2004.
Aaah yes, conservatives must have thought – the true McCain legacy. McCain had been such a rotten Republican for so long, the notion that he might run on a ticket with John Kerry was actually a plausible one. For those with long memories regarding that particular incident, they probably recalled McCain allowed the rumor to stay out there as long as possible, so obvious was his pleasure at the discomfort that it brought the White House and people who supported the White House.
That leads us to what McCain least understands – although it’s not true in the media and even not true with the public at large, conservatives and Republicans still support and approve of the administration. When McCain runs about diminishing Donald Rumsfeld as he did last week, one can only marvel at how secluded he’s become in his own cocoon. McCain has apparently concluded that such comments will ingratiate himself with the Republican electorate that he needs to win the nomination.
Perhaps he felt that way from the start of the Bush administration. That would explain why he thought courting the reputation of a “maverick” would offset the hostility he was fomenting in the Republican base.
Can McCain make a comeback? To do so, he’ll have to get the Republican Party to forget his past six years. Since, as he’s shown this week, he’s disinclined to make any effort to do so, for better or worse the John McCain candidacy is likely to be stillborn.
John McCain has spent six years working diligently to offend the conservatives whose support he now needs. Right now he trails Giuliani by 20 points. That may well represent the high point of his campaign.