The McCain Trap

January 10, 2007

Tonight, President Bush will publicly make his case for escalation in Iraq and many in the pundit class are talking about this move as a last ditch effort to save a floundering presidency and win in Iraq. Given his anemic approval numbers, the Democratic majorities in congress, and the fact that in a little more than two years someone else will be living on Pennsylvania Ave, it is hard to see how the president can resuscitate his waning power. After six years, the American people have mostly made up their minds about Mr. Bush. And as for the war, this sounds mostly like an effort to extend the war for another friedman.

That is not to say, however, that this decision is not of great importance. Clearly it is of pressing concern for the 20,000 soldiers and their families. It could also be very dangerous policy-wise, if the new thinking is that continually sending new troops over will assure us of victory; the likely result of which being more broken lives and a broken military. Politically, this strategy will have significant ramifications, particularly for Senator John McCain as he seeks the presidency. The war is overwhelmingly unpopular with voters as whole, but McCain needs to remain supportive of the president as he gears up for a potentially difficult primary. Should the war continue to be unpopular into the general election (and there is little reason to assume it will not), McCain may be placed squarely in a no-win scenario.

To win the nomination, he must support the Bush Administration, but the more he does so, the harder he makes it to win the general election; a race that could be tough for any Republican to win 2008. McCain’s solution appears to be to criticize Bush for not being hawkish enough, but will that strategy bear fruit? McCain is no doubt hoping that he can maintain the support of the Republican base while creating plausible deniability with the general electorate (”If I had been president, then things would be different in Iraq…”). The war is unpopular, however, and people rarely like more of an unpopular thing. Furthermore, criticizing Bush at all–even from the right–may serve only to reinforce the caricature of McCain as a self-absorbed grandstander who is more interested in self-promotion than supporting his party. By attempting to satisfy all voters, McCain’s gambit may backfire and leave his campaign mortally wounded before it really gets off the ground.

The challenge for McCain has always been locking up the party base. He ran as an outsider in 2000. Despite being a media darling, McCain lost that race in convincing fashion. He won the first primary in New Hampshire, catapulting into a real race with Bush. Had McCain won in South Carolina, perhaps the entire dynamic of the primary would have been altered. Although he forced Bush to flood the state with cash and pander more to the Religious Right, McCain could not overcome the formidable Bush machine. Winning a New England state like New Hampshire was one thing; winning in the heavily conservative South Carolina another task altogether. Despite going on to win Michigan, Arizona, and a few more Northeastern states, the loss in South Carolina was the effective end of McCain’s chances.

The problem for McCain has not been his conservatism. McCain was at least as conservative as George W. Bush (circa 2000) on the bread and butter conservative issues: pro-life and anti-tax. So what was the problem? The simple fact is that Republican voters didn’t like him all that much. McCain was running on a reform ticket, notably including including campaign finance reform. He also spent time on the campaign trail decrying the influence of the Religious Right. It did not take much, but McCain managed to alienate both the corporate and evangelical wings of the party; two constituencies without whom, no candidate could win the nomination. Indeed, this very clear in the election results. Although McCain managed to win a few primaries outright, they were mostly open primaries where independents and Democrats could vote. Of the closed primaries, where only registered Republicans could vote, Bush won all of them but Arizona (McCain’s home state) and Connecticut.

Perhaps McCain’s greatest sin in 2000 was that he would dare interrupt the coronation proceedings of George Bush. To most observers, Bush had the nomination sewn up until McCain’s surprising victory in New Hampshire. The groundwork had all been set and most challengers scared off by the massive Bush war chest. The primaries were supposed to be a validation of the Bush ascendancy, not an actual contest. Unlike the Democratic party, which has a suicidal proud tradition of almost violently taking down its frontrunners (hello President Muskie), Republicans have traditionally gone with the early leader. McCain’s abrasive and insurgent campaign against Bush not only irritated much of the party faithful, but created an image of McCain as a RINO and disloyal to his party.

Only 26% of the country supports Bush on Iraq, so standing behind the president might seem like a foolish strategy. That 26%, however, is overwhelmingly Republican and likely represents a huge percentage of the primary electorate. To become the nominee, McCain needs to win those voters. He needs to convince them that he is not the same guy he was in 2000: a maverick usurper. He needs to show them that he is a key player on Team Republican and not just a showy gloryhog. McCain has worked very hard to woo the base over the past 6 years. He not only turned down John Kerry’s sure-thing offer of the vice presidency in 2004, but vigorously campaigned for Bush. His convention speech was not just a tepid and perfunctory endorsement of Bush, but a philippic against the dangers of electing John Kerry.

McCain’s goal was to establish himself as the heir-apparent to Bush given that there would be no incumbent vice president to run in 2008. At the time, that seemed like the unassailably correct course of action. Bush might not have been the most popular president in history, but he was beloved by the base and strong enough to win reelection (albeit against a weak opponent). Now that Bush’s numbers have slipped, it is still just as essential for McCain to stand by Bush. He has done an amazing job of rehabilitating his reputation with the party loyalists such that he is the clear front runner for the nomination. McCain needs to do everything he can to maintain that front runner status over the coming year. As he learned in 2000, Republican front runners win and insurgents get to wait until next time. At age 72, should he fail in 2008, McCain’s next time will never come. He needs to worry about his image amongst the general electorate, but McCain needs to place the primary as a higher priority. There is enough baggage there that even a few slight slip-ups could sink McCain’s primary campaign and leave him trailing an alternative candidate before the year’s end.

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One Response to “The McCain Trap”

  1. dailysalad Says:

    akk! real political commentary?! hopefully nicky’s nfl playoff analysis wont be as hard hitting.


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