McCain's Moment is Over

Posted: May 31, 2001 12:00 AM
Here's a story for John McCain. In 1996, former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander came within a couple thousand votes of beating Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary. If Alexander had won New Hampshire, it's possible that he would have not only won the GOP nomination, but also won the White House. Walking around New Hampshire in his average-Joe red flannel shirt, Alexander was the intelligent man's anti-Washington firebrand. When asked about Congress, he said he wanted to "cut their pay and send them home." He married his outsider message with the practical argument that he could actually win the general election. Alexander's slogan was "Remember your ABCs: 'Alexander Beats Clinton.'" And it wasn't just a slogan. Even President Clinton's aides admitted at the time that Alexander was the potential opponent they feared most. Alexander was a moderate Republican Southern governor with impeccable education and civil rights credentials. German scientists couldn't have designed a better adversary for Clinton. Of course, Alexander (ital) didn't (end ital) win the New Hampshire primary. And it wasn't long before everyone forgot Alexander's near victory in New Hampshire. That is, except for Alexander. He returned to Tennessee and at once began plotting his comeback (which included hiring my fiancee as his policy director - I'm all about full-disclosure). Alexander reasoned that if he came so close in 1996, the next time around he could pull it off. He couldn't. Alexander's campaign imploded before the first primary vote was cast. The moral of this story is the most obvious one in politics and the hardest for many politicians to learn: Politics is about moments. Lamar Alexander went far because he was (ital) almost (end ital) the right candidate at the right moment. The same can be said about dozens of famous also-rans. This should sound familiar to McCain fans. McCain ran as an insider-outsider in 2000. He was beaten by a bigger, better and richer organization. He came close and, like Alexander in 2000, he still can't get over the past. McCain could also learn a lesson from Pat Buchanan. In 1992, Buchanan received a stunning 37 percent of the Republican vote in the New Hampshire primary, running against a sitting president, the elder George Bush. This was a historic accomplishment and it permanently ruined Buchanan. He became obsessed, convinced his fleeting success was about the man, not the moment. Buchanan's popularity was derived almost entirely from Bush's unpopularity. Unable to understand that, Buchanan ran again in 1996. In 2000 he became a three-time-loser, this time bolting from the GOP in order to join the freak-show Reform Party. Opportunities in politics aren't like annual sales at Macy's or weekly Extra Value Meals at McDonald's or even like Haley's Comet. They do not arise on predictable cues or timetables and cannot be re-created. Even Ronald Reagan, like all politicians, benefited from a unique set of circumstances. America was suffering from stagflation, a deteriorating Cold War, a hostage crisis and a sweater-wearing Democrat who sought to blame America's problems on the grouchiness of the American people. Reagan might have been victorious under other circumstances, though it is impossible to know and the odds are against it. During World War II, Winston Churchill saved Britain, but he was voted out office once the heavy lifting of that moment was over. So why should John McCain learn this lesson? Because the man- and his advisers - seem increasingly convinced that their moment is over. It's made him increasingly desperate to stay in the limelight and use rhetoric and tactics that made sense while fighting for the Republican nomination but are simply egotistical and destructive - to his party and his reputation - now that the campaign is over. Since he first ran for the Republican nomination, McCain has moved steadily to the left, just so he could prove his "independence." He voted against President Bush's tax cut after months of supporting it. He took a nasty swipe at the GOP to defend James Jeffords' defection from the party. He has become more dismissive of the pro-life and pro-guns positions he held most of his political life. Last spring, McCain declared (and quickly retracted) that he had a "mandate" to pursue campaign finance reform, a statement only someone living in the past could make, considering McCain lost to Bush decisively and about 98 percent of Americans never voted for him. Indeed, campaign finance reform offers the best example of his nostalgic confusion, specifically McCain's increasingly bitter rhetoric about "the system." McCain launched his presidential campaign to conquer cynicism about government, but he increasingly argues that "the system" is inherently corrupt. "The system" he's referring to is the United States government. During the primaries, I endorsed McCain because I thought he was the right man for America after Bill Clinton. I may have been right, but we will never know, because that moment will never return. And in the meantime, the man I endorsed has become unrecognizable as he ever more frantically tries to hold onto an opportunity that has passed him by.