POLITICS DECEMBER 14, 2005
It has never been entirely clear just who makes up the Republican establishment--businessmen? evangelicals? freepers?--but it is clear that they've never liked John McCain. A look at the coverage of McCain's 2000 presidential primary campaign reveals hundreds of instances in which the Arizona senator is depicted as waging heroic battle against the GOP establishment, and the establishment is depicted as fighting back just as hard, if less heroically. The establishment's efforts "to kneecap the hated McCain," wrote Joe Klein after McCain won the 2000 New Hampshire primary, "are likely to grow uglier as the South Carolina primary approaches." Indeed they did, and McCain went down.
Of course, in defeating McCain, the Republican establishment made a pretty good choice; it got a two-term presidency and all that goes along with it out of the deal. But now, as that presidency moves into lame duckhood--with no designated successor to George W. Bush--McCain is still there, and he's getting another look from some of the people who fought against him six years ago. Although, at this point, the 2008 polls reflect name recognition more than anything else, McCain is near the top of them, and he's also dominating what might be called the invisible primary of the activists and insiders who play key roles in the presidential primaries.
There are several reasons why GOP establishment types are warming to the man they once rejected--and who rejected them. First is the loyalty McCain showed toward Bush in the last election. Second is his stand on the war in Iraq. Third is his hard line on federal spending. And the fourth reason is not an issue, but the absence of one: In 2008, McCain, having won his fight for campaign finance reform, will no longer be showcasing a cause that most Democrats loved but most Republicans hated.
McCain campaigned like a workhorse for Bush in 2004, making more appearances for (and with) the president than he made for himself in his own reelection campaign. "I spent a grand total of three days in Arizona between the first of September and November," McCain tells me. "I thought it was a lot more important for him to be reelected than for me to be reelected." (That kind of it's-not-about-me humility is easier when you win, as McCain did in Arizona, with 77 percent of the vote.) McCain points out that he also campaigned for Bush in 2000 but got little credit for it, because "people wouldn't accept the fact that I had gotten over any real or imagined problems with the South Carolina primary."
But, in 2004, Republicans took notice. "People who were for George Bush in the Bush-McCain fight appreciated McCain standing up for the president," says Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "We knew he didn't have to do it, and that will be a tremendous asset for McCain in South Carolina." Dawson makes it clear that he hasn't chosen sides and that other candidates--Senators George Allen and Bill Frist, in particular--have accumulated some significant political IOUs in South Carolina. But McCain has, at the very least, earned the credibility to go back to the state, not as a loser, but as a major contender.
More than any other issue, the war is the reason why Republicans thank McCain for standing by Bush. As the level of public approval for the war goes down, and some Republicans worry that they have to accommodate Democratic calls for withdrawal, McCain's hawkishness looks better and better to those in the GOP--still a majority--who want to stay the course. McCain is their man; he has a way of talking about the war that simply sounds right to Republican ears: stronger, clearer, and more direct than Bush himself. "We cannot afford to lose it," he tells me. "Just read Zarqawi. We lose it, and they're coming after us."
With his war hero credibility, McCain is able to dismiss the calls of some of his fellow lawmakers--and fellow veterans--who want to get out of Iraq. John Kerry, McCain says, doesn't have "the strength to see it through." And John Murtha is "a lovable guy," but "he's never been a big thinker; he's an appropriator." Using language that Bush never could, McCain tells me that Murtha has become too emotional about the human cost of the war. "As we get older, we get more sentimental," McCain says. "And [Murtha] has been very, very affected by the funerals and the families. But you cannot let that affect the way you decide policy."
A statement like that--sad, but, at the same time, coldly determined--would not be made by a man worried about how the war will affect his political fortunes. And McCain isn't. "We don't ever even talk about [the war] in political terms," McCain's longtime top strategist, John Weaver, tells me. "If John McCain and George W. Bush are the last two men standing advocating the exportation of democracy and the protection of democracy in Iraq, so be it. It's absolutely the right thing to do." There's no doubt McCain believes that, but it also happens to be, at least at this moment, the kind of buck-up certitude the Republican base, struggling with its own doubts about the war, wants to hear.
McCain is also aligned with the GOP establishment on the issue that, were it not for the war, would be the source of a bitter fight between Republicans and Bush: federal spending. In the last few years, McCain, who enjoys a longstanding reputation for opposing pork-barrel spending, voted against the exorbitant prescription-drug entitlement. He voted against the highway bill, and he was one of the noisiest opponents of its most notorious provision, Ted Stevens's Bridge to Nowhere. No other Republican candidate has a better record on the issue.
When Stephen Moore, the former head of the Club for Growth who is now with The Wall Street Journal editorial board, interviewed McCain recently, Moore couldn't find much to criticize on the question of federal expenditures. "More than any other first-tier GOP candidate in 2008, Mr. McCain has shrewdly tapped into the rage that conservatives are feeling" about big spending projects, Moore wrote. Of course, Moore couldn't abide McCain's opposition to some of the president's tax cuts, but, given the deficit, it's likely those votes will diminish in importance when compared with McCain's position on spending.
Finally, there is the issue that McCain doesn't have. In 2000, McCain based his candidacy on campaign finance reform, a cause almost entirely associated with Democrats. While that appealed to some independents, it had a pie-in-the-sky air about it that turned off Republicans, many of whom still believe Bush should have vetoed McCain-Feingold when it finally won congressional approval. And, at least in the view of the GOP establishment, it didn't work, either: McCain did all that campaigning so George Soros could spend $27 million on a personal mission to defeat Bush? That's not an accomplishment to boast about in Republican primaries.
The good news is that's over; McCain won't be making a big deal of it in the years to come. But he still wants to cast himself as a reformer. When I ask him about his inquiry into the Jack Abramoff scandal, he launches into a statement about the urgent need for lobbying reform. "We've got to reform lobbying," he says. "I don't think that would offend very many people, except those in the lobbying community." And, by the way, McCain--who, as his opponents will remind you, was once a member of the Keating Five--says he was stunned that the Abramoff mess is as bad as it is. "I had no clue that it would blossom into this," he says. "I had no clue."
In any event, McCain concedes that the reform agenda from 2000 probably won't be a major factor in 2008. "I think that the issues of national security will probably be transcendent for a long time," he says, "because I think the war on terror will be with us for a long time."
"Even though McCain is in line with the Republican establishment on most of the top issues these days, there are still some instances where he might find himself on the outs with GOP primary voters."
Even though McCain is in line with the Republican establishment on most of the top issues these days, there are still some instances where he might find himself on the outs with GOP primary voters. The biggest is illegal immigration. The party is split, with a lot of conservatives preferring a proposal sponsored by McCain's Republican colleague from Arizona, Senator Jon Kyl, and Texas Senator John Cornyn that would require illegal immigrants who are in the United States now to go home before they can apply to come back and work. McCain has a competing bill, co-sponsored with Ted Kennedy--it is generally not a great idea for candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination to be closely identified with the senior senator from Massachusetts--which would allow those illegals to stay here during the process. With some justification, McCain's opponents call it an amnesty bill, and McCain will undoubtedly pay a political price among voters who believe the real answer to the problem is stricter border enforcement. On the other hand, no other candidate will be able to please all sides on the issue, either.
Another possible problem is the question of judicial nominations. When I speak with a Republican strategist who is allied with one of McCain's potential rivals, he says McCain threw away much of the support he had won campaigning for Bush when he joined the so-called "Gang of 14" senators who reached a compromise on Democratic filibusters of Bush appeals court nominees. "The whole issue of judicial nominations is very, very important to Republican activists and Republican primary voters," the strategist says. "I think there was a sense of betrayal among Republican activists when they saw those seven Republicans join those seven Democrats to head off the nuclear option." The strategist is right about the importance of the judges issue, but wrong about the Gang of 14 compromise. Yes, McCain and others agreed to preserve the Democrats' right to filibuster. But, in return, they forced Democrats to back down on their most hated nominees: William Pryor, Janice Rogers Brown, and Priscilla Owen. And the GOP members reserved the right to break any future Democratic filibuster. That probably won't hurt McCain.
And, with so much of the political spotlight on national security, McCain's charisma and war record often allow him to bowl over even those Republicans who don't like all his positions. "While I disagree vehemently with him on many policy issues, it is thrilling to sit in his presence," wrote Moore. "He is a genuine American hero and patriot in an age when heroism and patriotism have gone out of style." More than any other senator, McCain seems like an executive branch leader; among the Republican field, his only real rival on that score is Rudy Giuliani.
One inside-baseball indicator of McCain's status with the Republican establishment is the fact that his campaign might--in a development that would have been unthinkable a few years ago--attract a few members of the Bush team. Media consultant Mark McKinnon, for one, leaves no doubt that he wants to work for McCain. "I consider myself a friend," McKinnon tells me. "I told the senator, as I told the president, that if anybody from the president's inner circle runs--that is, Jeb or Condi--then I would want to support them. But, if they didn't, then I would support him."
Of course, it's just 2005, and there's no way to know what issues will be most important in 2008 or whether those issues will be friendly to McCain. He's obviously betting on national security, which means a 2008 McCain campaign might look nothing like the 2000 McCain campaign. And that, for the Republican establishment at least, is a good thing. "If he comes in with the Straight Talk Express and the same stuff, I don't know if that will get him anywhere," says Dawson. "We're looking for what their vision is for America after President Bush." (Dawson apparently hasn't checked out McCain's new website, StraightTalkAmerica.com, where, among other things, supporters are invited to buy a tiny lapel pin replica of the Straight Talk Express bus. Just $25.)
Probably the biggest mistake McCain could make, after building up so much credibility with establishment types, would be to try to recapture the "maverick" image that so charmed the press (and some voters) in 2000. When I talk to yet another Republican strategist who is allied with yet another of McCain's potential rivals--nobody wants to speak openly about this yet--he tells me he'd love to see McCain thumb his nose at the party establishment again. "For his opponents, the more maverick, the better," the strategist says. "There are some folks who love the maverick, but are those folks likely to be Republican primary voters? Republican activists are looking for Republicans."
McCain seems to understand that now. But there is always the possibility that he will backslide. "I don't know of anything I have done recently that would anger the Republican base," he tells me. "But I cannot be positive that I won't think of one."
Byron York is the White House correspondent for National Review.
By Byron York