What's eating John McCain?

Posted: Jul 22, 2006 12:01 AM
What's eating John McCain?

The vice president usually has an edge going into the primaries because he's close enough to the president to associate himself with the high office, and just far enough away to distance himself from the responsibility for unpopular presidential decisions. But in the absence of a Cheney charge at the White House, a VPOTUS-like candidate has emerged. I don't know if running as the VPOTUS-like candidate will work for John McCain, but it has its advantages. McCain's character has something particularly important to offer in a time of war: continuity.

Speaking at the conservative Manhattan Institute (a very unofficial addition to the "pre-primary primary" season) in New York City recently, the Vietnam vet and former prisoner of war was clear and adamant about the "War on Terror." For him, this war is a unified whole: Not just discrete campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the reason for Israel's pounding at Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the reason Syria shouldn't be off the radar. He noted that Israel's enemy is "also dedicated to the destruction of the United States of America." McCain gets it. And that could mean a lot come November 2008.

But McCain has had his problems securing a right-wing fan base. As a recent Esquire piece made clear, he's not all that chummy with conservatives, especially religious ones, who are key to winning GOP primaries. And although McCain was smart about his language at the Manhattan event, referencing conservatives as "us," that doesn't give him the key to every conservative heart.

McCain distanced himself further from the president on embryonic stem cell research funding, expressing his disappointment that the president would choose to use his first veto on this issue, at the same time invoking the Reagan name (one of many times over the course of his speech) to express his disapproval. Although this is a confusing issue, in large part to terrible media coverage, this misstep could also be a primary problem for him, coupled with his troubled past with President Bush.

Even though Bush and McCain kissed and made up over McCain's 2000 ad campaign announcing that Bush "twists the truth like Clinton," it remains awkward for McCain to present himself as Bush's natural successor. Perhaps mending those fences isn't the best strategy for McCain -- since 2000 he's worked with the president on various issues, leaving him with a lot of Bush's publicly unpopular baggage. Yet on immigration, McCain's as scolding and insulting as the president can be; to many, as a supporter of the president's policy, he's a supporter of "amnesty." At the Manhattan Institute event he talked about a teenager who died crossing the border -- as if those who want enforcement first, including the members of his own party in the leadership in the House of Representatives, were to blame for her death.

But what if the unspeakable happens? What if we're attacked again within the borders of the United States? Rudy Giuliani has an obvious Sept. 11 gravitas. But who has the foreign-policy cred? As one pro-McCain politico recently told me, foreign policy is McCain's "key asset": "His national-security credentials ... are accepted across the political spectrum. Given the state of the world, I don't think anyone is going to be elected president in '08 who isn't ready to be commander in chief from day one. In truth there are few people in either party who can satisfy that requirement."