Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The McCain Tight-Rope

As we saw in 2000, the political fortunes of John McCain are balanced on a precarious tight rope. The more he falls to one side, the more he endears himself to right-wing conservatives and establishment Republicans. The more he falls to the other, the more his appeal broadens to independents and moderates from both parties - demographics that are unreachable for nearly every other Republican candidate. As his popularity rises with one, it falls with the other. In this balancing act, McCain has struggled to find a safe middle-ground and we’ve seen him evolve from a straight-talking maverick to a Bush loyalist to somewhere in between. In the Fall, these struggles put him and his campaign on the ropes. Today, he has staked his claim in a political no man's land somewhere above the fray - getting just enough support from both sides to win New Hampshire and South Carolina. It’s unclear how long he can safely occupy this ground but, if he is going to survive the Republican nominating process against opponents perceived as more "traditionally conservative", it surely won't last long.

E.J. Dionne: John McCain is feared by Democrats and liked by independents. That, paradoxically, is why he may yet be rejected by Republicans, even though he has bent over backward to satisfy conservative demands. McCain's politics-be-damned image has proved remarkably durable, even though he more recently cozied up to his right-wing critics in the anti-tax movement and the older parts of the religious right. Where he once bravely opposed Bush's tax cuts, McCain now spouts orthodoxy in declaring they should be made permanent. He speaks of himself as the true Reaganite because of his opposition to federal spending. In South Carolina it was enough - but only because moderates, liberals and independents identified McCain as the best available alternative.
And that’s the thing about McCain… While perceived as “the brave independent willing to confront a Republican political machine that punishes free thinking," his voting record is far from independent. He votes with his party and the president nearly 90% of the time and his departures from the Republican Party on major votes come with much less frequency than his moderate and independent admirers or conservative detractors let on. His leadership on climate change, immigration and judicial nominations is worthy of praise. There's no doubt about that. But the stands he has taken on these issues (often with a number of conservative senators standing behind him) are far from liberal. They may appear liberal when contrasted with the stances of unrealistic Republican ideologues, but, in actuality, they are generally smack-dab in the middle of mainstream public opinion. His opinions and actions may enrage the Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of the world but does that make him a maverick? Not necessarily. After all, if McCain’s Republicanism was truly in doubt, why would he have endorsements by conservative establishment figures such as Trent Lott, Sam Brownback, Phil Gramm, and Jon Kyl?

Nevertheless, the question of McCain’s true “conservative credentials” continues to be debated and as assaults from the right-wing attack machine continue, independents and moderates have rushed to his defense. It has to be an alarming trend for McCain who is approaching a slate of conservative states. As his popularity rises with one group, it falls with the other - that preacrious political tight-rope.

Ann Coulter, who has repeatedly attacked McCain’s integrity over the years, is always quick to point out that McCain’s appeal with non-right-wingers is proof of his evil ways. In fact, she recently blamed McCain’s loss in Michigan on Democrats...and snow storms. “Unluckily for McCain, snowstorms in Michigan suppressed the turnout among Democratic "Independents" who planned to screw up the Republican primary by voting for our worst candidate. Democrats are notoriously unreliable voters in bad weather. Instead of putting on galoshes and going to the polls, they sit on their porches waiting for FEMA to rescue them.” So yes, Democrats are all lazy dependents of the federal government with a fear of bad weather, and John McCain is the GOP's worst candidate. Well, who is the best candidate, Ann? It’s Mitt Romney…and “by a landslide.” Why? Because “the candidate Republicans should be clamoring for is the one liberals are feverishly denouncing.” As per usual, the logic of Ann Coulter is infallible.

Rush Limbaugh, who shamelessly attacks McCain every chance he gets, went even further, claiming that nominating McCain (or Huckabee) would "destroy the Republican Party . . . change it forever, be the end of it.” Other ideologues like Rick Santorum and Tom DeLay claim that they’d vote for Hillary Clinton before they’d vote for John McCain. Really? What is it that scares them so much?

Is it because, despite his conservative voting record, McCain truly does “confront a Republican political machine that punishes free thinking”? Maybe it’s because of his approach to issues. He may end up in the conservative camp at the end of the day, but he actually seeks solutions to our nation’s problems and doesn’t hate his political opponents. Maybe those who denounce him so vehemently fear they will become increasingly irrelevant during a McCain Presidency that would move beyond the divisive politics of hate. After all, if there was no boogeyman to demagogue, the Coulters and Limbaughs might actually have to defend the merits of their “ideas”.

The question remains, but some answers may be right around the corner.

Dionne: This is also what makes the next stage of the Republican contest so perilous for McCain. In many of the states that vote next - notably Florida, which casts ballots next Tuesday - independents will not be able to come to McCain's aid. In such closed primaries, he will have to emphasize his fealty to traditional conservatism and use his strong support for the Iraq war as a Republican credential.

The balancing act will continue because “the more McCain tries to look like a typical Republican, the more he threatens his standing with middle-of-the-road voters."

McCain thus confronts the most difficult challenge he has faced so far. He made his name as a straight-talker who does not shade his positions to satisfy potential critics. But to win the rest of the way, McCain may have to offer himself as a split personality. He will argue to those on the party's right who mistrust him that they should support him as the one candidate who can appeal beyond the Republican base. But he will also try to ease conservative worries by presenting the most conformist version of himself, thereby giving independents food for second thoughts. At one and the same time, he will have to be the true conservative and the maverick, the loyal font of traditional Republican nostrums and the independent thinker, the candidate of both Fox News and CNN.

Candidates must always walk a fine line in presidential politics and McCain’s tightrope routine will undoubtedly test the best of his abilities. As discussed in the Wall Street Journal – “Ultimately, Mr. McCain doesn't have to make conservatives adore him. But he'll never be president unless he persuades them he's the most conservative candidate available with a credible chance of winning the White House. That shouldn't be too hard a sell."

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