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July 16, 2007

The McCain Meltdown


It sounded so promising, the idea of John McCain running for president in 2008. A celebrated war hero, and a man respected by members of both parties like few men in politics, McCain had the added distinction of being defeated in vicious fashion eight years previously, in a race that many, many Americans likely wish in retrospect had gone the other way.


But now, the summer prior to the year of election, McCain’s second presidential campaign appears dead. He’s far behind in the polls, has raised little money, and last week, three of his most-trusted longtime advisors – including strategist John Weaver and speechwriter/book co-author Mark Salter – exited or greatly reduced their roles in the campaign. 


So what went wrong? Many things. McCain apparently assumed, incorrectly, that the Republican tradition of handing the presidential nomination to the person whose “turn” it is would hold. It hasn’t. His candidacy has lost what made the 2000 version unique – its newness and hunger for reform – and never found a reason to exist beyond that. Plus, McCain is old (now 71), and looking older than ever, especially in his lackluster debate performances. In the first, he vowed to follow Osama Bin Laden “into hell,” before grinning maniacally.


Making matters worse, the “outsider” label has fallen to fellow Republican/future candidate Fred Thompson, while the “newcomer who may transcend politics” mantle is being taken up by Barack Obama, who appears even better at putting forward that sort of message than McCain was the first time around.


And, perhaps worst of all for the McCain candidacy, his occasional forays into political centrism has absolutely ruined him with the conservative base. When McCain met with the since-deceased Jerry Falwell, after having lambasted him as an “agent of intolerance” just a few years earlier, it made absolutely no one happy. Moderates saw him as a sellout, while conservatives believed him a panderer.


McCain, unquestionably, has bungled things greatly with this campaign strategically. But regardless, he remains significantly more qualified for the presidency than any of the other major Republican candidates, especially the ever-more-pandering Mitt Romney and the increasingly unhinged Rudy Giuliani.


Even I, as a liberal-leaning Democrat, have often wished – especially around 9/11 and the initial prosecution of the Iraq war – that McCain and not Bush had been president the past years, a wish I’ve rarely had about, say, Al Gore. Then again, that’s part of the problem. McCain may be essentially a down-the-line conservative who has never pretended to be anything but, but he’s taken the more liberal side on such issues as immigration reform, the “Gang of 14” compromise on judicial appointments and torture. The latter is a position on which, as one who has been tortured himself, he certainly holds the moral high ground.


As a result of this, the senator is considerably more respected by both the press and by liberals in general than your typical veteran Republican lawmaker. Democrats even attempted to draft him as vice president in 2004. As McCain’s crumbling candidacy shows, nothing portends pure death for a Republican candidate than respect from the media and/or liberals.


McCain, over the years, was often rumored to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Theodore Roosevelt, and pursue an independent run at the presidency late in his career. Perhaps 2004 would have been the time to do it, especially at a time when Americans were both craving strong military leadership and highly dissatisfied with both hateful political partisanship and the two main candidates themselves.


But instead, McCain chose to reject John Kerry’s offer to be his running mate, endorsed Bush and largely sat out the ’04 campaign, running for president four years later at exactly the wrong time.


Could McCain still make a comeback? That’s very possible. After all, at this time in 2004, John Kerry’s bid also appeared dead in the water, and he had already been through at least one of the 50 or so personnel shakeups of that cycle. But with little money and no natural base of support, it appears McCain’s second presidential campaign will have little in common with his first, except for the part about losing.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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