Sunday, June 15, 2008

what's wrong (and right) with mccain

Notwithstanding the anti-Republican mood, John McCain remains close to Barack Obama in most national polls. Yet his campaign and its candidate seem lacking in both energy and direction, and most experts, including most Republicans, expect the gap to broader rather than narrow in the months ahead. What's the matter with McCain, and what can be done to fix it?

One of the most often heard criticisms is the difference between McCain 2000 and McCain 2008. McCain 2000, it is said, was a reformer who took on special interests without fear or favor. McCain 2008, by contrast, is compromised by eight years of support for Bush (most of the time) and especially for the war in Iraq. One is reminded of the crack that the first President Bush put his manhood in trust during the Reagan Presidency, or worse yet of Bob Dole, who might have been a fine candidate in 1988 but proved a weak one eight years later.

I think this criticism is true and not true. McCain is surely older than in 2000--who isn't?--and his campaign sometimes takes on a bit of a revival flavor. But his essence is unchanged, and none of his core positions, with the exception of a slight dance on tax cuts, has really changed.

A bigger problem than McCain's persona is his campaign. Lacking a truly comprehensive grassroots organization, he has little choice but to tap into existing Republican networks that tend to be more doctrinaire conservatives than McCain himself. In Pennsylvania, for example, he has hired a number of operatives from Rick Santorum's 2006 election campaign, which spent something like $30 million and lost in a rout. If he wishes to run as a "maverick," McCain will thus be forced, not only to run against his own party, but to some degree his own campaign.

Can he pull it off? Stranger things have certainly happened. A McCain who ran a genuinely reformist campaign, emphasizing his willingness to take unpopular positions (Iraq, immigration, campaign finance) and his opponent's conventional liberalism, would be an attractive candidate to many swing voters. There are recent indications that he will indeed move in this direction. The problem is that there is nothing in the existing Republican Party that gives resonance to this approach. I am reminded of the time that the New York Yankees, who play in a ballpark designed for home runs, decided to emphasize speed, pitching, and defense. It lasted maybe a few months. Then again, the election is only four months away.


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