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Mar 28 2006

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In ’08, it Will Be McCain

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The GOP Nominee...

The GOP Nominee…

As the jockeying for the 2008 Republican nomination begins, conventional wisdom is again settling the terms of the initial debate.

Two points are notable. First, that Vice President Cheney’s decision to forgo the Republican nomination two years hence will make the 2008 Republican primary the most wide-open in more than half a century. The second is that Senator John McCain can’t win the nomination.

Despite the conventional wisdom neither point is correct. While as many as eleven Republicans may seek the GOP nomination (and potentially more), careful planning, a traditional record and principles, circumstance and the luck of an evolving political landscape are conspiring to make an otherwise unlikely front runner out of the Arizona Senator.

Maverick with a Base Problem

Looking at the lessons from the 2000 Republican primaries, as well as McCain’s issues and votes since, the Senator’s current rise would seem improbable.

As the Democrats’ (and the media’s) favorite Republican, McCain has raised suspicion within the Republican Base from the start. In the 2000 race, the McCain insurgency incited non-Republicans to enter open primaries to counter the Bush advantage within the Republican establishment. The race left scars on both sides. McCain resented the Bush campaign’s hardball tactics, while conservatives in general, and social conservatives in particular, were alarmed by McCain’s rhetoric that painted Bush, and them, as unflatteringly extreme.

Things did not improve after Bush became president. McCain continued to play the unconventional independent, voting against Bush’s tax cuts, co-sponsoring and winning passage of “speech-regulating” campaign finance reform and supporting stronger environmental safeguards against global warming. According to National Journal, McCain’s conservative rating dropped from 66% in 2001 to 51% in 2004.

And since 2004, McCain has annoyed the Administration with his insistence on a “detainee treatment” amendment that eventually won passage and the President’s signature. Perhaps more ominously, McCain earned nearly universal conservative enmity when he engineered a bipartisan compromise to end the deadlock on federal judges. The move was an end-run around Republican leaders who were chafing to change long-standing Senate rules that allowed Democratic filibusters of qualified, but otherwise conservative candidates for the federal bench.

Conservative in Maverick’s Clothing

However, these high profile votes and actions obscure McCain’s record since he came to the Senate in 1987. On issues that are near and dear to the Base, McCain has a long record of support for traditional conservative principles.

Take abortion. McCain has a nearly perfect pro-life record, recently re-confirming his position that with the exceptions of rape, incest and the life of the mother, he remains supportive of a ban on abortion. A position that is identical to President Bush’s. Gay marriage amendment?  McCain supports it.

What about the 2nd Amendment? In 2005, McCain supported an amendment that would prohibit civil liability to gun manufacturers. Social Security?  McCain was an early and strong supporter of the President’s now-defunct plan to introduce private accounts. Mad about the cost of the Medicare prescription drug benefit? McCain proposed suspending the program to pay for Katrina-related reconstruction of New Orleans. Suspicious of the UN?  Recently, McCain voted in favor of an amendment that would have cut funding for the UN Human Rights Council and channeled the money into border security.

McCain has been a reliable free trader (NAFTA, CAFTA and the Andean FTA), a steadfast and strong supporter of national defense, specifically the War on Terror, and has a long record  opposing wasteful federal spending, most recently supporting legislation to introduce the line item veto as well as limit congressional earmarks for appropriations.

In light of this record, it is worth pondering why Republicans remain so willfully skeptical of McCain, and Democrats so content in their denial.

The Quiet Second Look

In gearing up for a second run, McCain appears to recognize both his strengths as a candidate and his legacy from 2000. First, and perhaps most importantly, McCain strongly supported the President’s re-election in 2004, campaigning vigorously for the ticket. Since then, he has begun a mature, professional and methodical outreach to the Party’s Base – which supported Bush overwhelmingly in 2000 – while putting together a campaign organization staffed by former, senior officials of the President’s winning team. While seeking a second look from the Base, McCain is also tapping into the President’s fundraising operation, the most successful political money machine in American history.

The strategy is rooted in seemingly unaccustomed humility for the Senator. According to the Washington Post, McCain recently sat down with state Republican movers and shakers in South Carolina, seeking support.  Almost all of them had backed Bush in the brutal South Carolina primary in ’00, which was the beginning of the end for the McCain campaign that year and the source of Senators loudest complaints thereafter.

The multi-pronged outreach has begun to bear fruit. Mark McKinnon, President Bush’s media advisor during the 2000 and 2004 campaigns has notionally signed on with McCain. So has Bush-Cheney ’04 political director Terry Nelson, best known for his work building and implementing a national, grass roots political operation.

Beyond campaign staff, McCain has also done outreach and bridge-building to colleagues. Trent Lott, the former Senate Majority Leader, has tangled with McCain on the environment, tax cuts and pork. In 2000 he supported Governor Bush over Senator McCain.

Yet in the recent GOP presidential cattle call in Memphis, Lott lent his very public support to McCain.

And McCain’s successes include the financiers. According to the Political Hotline, at least a dozen donors who had previously been Bush fundraising Pioneers or Rangers have written checks to McCain, including “mega-bundlers”, those who have shown an ability to write checks and influence others to write checks. Individual donors to the McCain campaign include well-known former politicos such as Ed Rogers as well as Bush 41 National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft.

Primary Terrain – The Competition & an Opening

McCain begins the 2008 exercise with several benefits. First, the GOP tends to reward the runner-up from the last campaign with the nomination for the next. This explains the emergence of Reagan in ’80 after he came tantalizingly close to seizing the nomination from Ford in ’76. George H.W. Bush, who came in second to Reagan in ’80, won the nomination in ’88 as Reagan’s Vice President. 1996 nominee Bob Dole was the Republican runner up in 1988. If the tradition holds, it could benefit McCain as the GOP runner up from ’00.

Second, is the lack of a credible gubernatorial candidate in ’08. Capable governors are a threat to Senators in both party’s primaries because governors “act” instead of “vote”. American voter preference is obvious. While no sitting senator has won the presidency since 1960, governors, current and former, have won four general elections since 1976, and interestingly, have beaten sitting presidents three of those four times.

That said, there are no credible governors currently planning a run in the GOP as of yet. George Pataki of NY is hopelessly out of step with the Republican primary Base and starved for rationale. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, though perhaps more personally conservative than Pataki, has flubbed his abortion position and has yet to make the case that a Governor of Massachusetts is a suitable nominee for the Sunbelt GOP. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas has yet to provide a compelling basis for his entry into the race beyond his personal weight loss and book on obesity.

Third, and perhaps most important, there is no consensus candidate to the right of McCain. Sam Brownback of Kansas is clearly targeting social conservatives, but he will share that space with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and to a lesser extent, with Virginia Senator George Allen, who is the greatest threat to McCain of the three.

Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado has staked a possible bid on conservative hostility to immigration, but this is little more than a protest candidacy at best, and may fizzle out well before the primaries. Bill Frist of Tennessee begins his presidential run with a record of blunders, missteps and just plain bad luck (SEC investigation) that have called into question his management skill (as Senate Majority Leader) as well as his core commitment to conservative issues.

This provides McCain with unaccustomed running room on the right to tailor his conservative credentials. He can handle the fragmented challenges of his individual competitors without having to abandon some of his more centrist positions, which make him an appealing general election candidate.

The places the current, public challenge to McCain from the center to the left.

The lesser of the two is Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Hagel is pondering a run as “McCain-Lite”, a Vietnam War veteran, straight shooting maverick, unafraid to take a position at odds with prevailing political wisdom. But Hagel’s problem is McCain. There isn’t room in the primary for two mavericks.  A serious McCain bid could end a Hagel run before it begins.

This leaves former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani is currently McCain’s number one challenger in almost every survey and bests him in most. His name recognition is as high as McCain’s and his popularity is unrivaled. Of those who are the strongest supporters of President Bush, Giuliani leads McCain by an improbable 14 points. Said another way, those who are the most conservative in the Party favor Giuliani by 14 points. This sets up an interesting dichotomy between a pro-choice, pr-gun control, gay rights supporting Republican mayor, and a conservative political movement.

It is a gift for McCain.

Just as Howard Dean allowed John Kerry to position himself as moderate and responsible in the Democratic primaries in ’04, so Giuliani is the perfect foil for McCain this go around. Both share a commitment to a strong national defense and support for the War on Terror, and that will remain a cornerstone for the Party in the next election. But those national security views are the core and essence of a Giuliani campaign. His problems begin where national security ends.

As for McCain, he can effortlessly pivot to his record on social and fiscal issues, without the need to move further to the right. Of the two candidates, there is simply no contest about who is the genuine conservative. The more movement conservatives in the primaries hear about Giuliani, the less they are going to like him. And the more Giuliani tries to get to the right of McCain, the less authentic he becomes.

Although Giuliani is a media darling right now, his entry into the ’08 race will draw the sharpened daggers of the Main Stream Media (MSM) who will delight in rehashing the official controversies of Giuliani’s administration as well as Giuliani’s very high profile, and controversial, personal life. It will leave the former mayor gutted and irreparably damaged.

The Gift of Timing & Circumstance

Despite his core principles and voting record, deft early positioning and favorable ideological ground for the primaries, McCain might not be anything more than competitive if it were not for today’s political landscape.

President Bush’s collapse in the polls has thrown cold water on Republicans who suddenly have genuine concern about GOP control of Congress this November and the White House in ’08. In a world where Bush is riding high, a more conventional politician in the mold of Frist or Allen would be a more logical choice for the nomination. However, in a world where the President is politically wounded, and Congress is wracked by scandal, the door is
open for a hybrid approach that only McCain is capable of. Three issues triangulate in McCain’s favor; the War in Iraq, corruption and spending.

McCain remains one of the most consistent, articulate and unambiguous supporters of the president’s Iraq policy and the War on Terror in general. As the war has continued and the polls have moved against the President, McCain provides fresh and plausible credibility to the Administration on an issue that most Americans are tuning out. This provides potentially enormous standing for McCain with the Base and an added reason for the White House to continue to embrace McCain.

And for McCain, it’s both a principled position and politically free. McCain’s Vietnam War experience provides him with a Teflon coat on national security issues that others (except possibly Hagel) simply do not possess. Other 08-ers will need to carefully assess the war and balance support and fidelity to Bush against the larger costs of turning off general election voters.  McCain does not have that problem.

At the same time, McCain can pivot from this fealty to Bush, and credibility as Commander-in-Chief in waiting, to his favorite issues that suddenly have resonance in Washington; pork barrel earmarks, out of control spending and Washington corruption. No Republican running for president has McCain’s credentials as a reformer and a fighter against the Washington culture. His efforts to cut wasteful pork from the budget and highlight highly suspect spending is legendary.

With Abramoff in the headlines, congressmen being indicted or carted off to prison, sweetheart deals apparently being cut with favored lobbyists and fiscally conservative Republicans in an uproar over out-of-control spending, McCain is an all purpose solution. He is sufficiently outside of the circle of Republican insiders to have credibility on corruption and spending. Suddenly, campaign finance reform, congressional ethics legislation and aggressive oversight of dubious earmarks and prolific federal spending have become vogue.

Lemons into Lemonade

In addition to this apparent embarrassment of newly found political riches for McCain comes a last laugh that many conservatives would never have predicted.

When McCain brokered the bipartisan Senate compromise last summer that prevented Bill Frist from pulling the trigger on the “nuclear option”, conservatives howled, promising that deal would be the nail in the coffin of McCain’s Republican presidential hopes. In retrospect however, it is clear that McCain shrewdly outmaneuvered the Democratic Senate leadership, avoided an unnecessary political showdown, demonstrated bipartisanship (the infamous “Gang of 14”)and, in the process, put in place a judicial standard that resulted in a number of very conservative judges being approved.  His work ultimately paved the way for the mostly conflict-free confirmations of Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Alito, a result that may be one of President Bush’s most enduring legacies, and one of the greatest gifts to social conservatives.

The Road Forward

Ultimately, the telling truth will be the final assessment of movement conservatives. Will they swallow their doubts and support McCain, understanding that despite his voting record that their core concerns would be, at best, on par with those of fiscal and foreign policy conservatives in the Party? With that in mind, would they find a McCain victory preferable to almost any Democrat in the White House? A new and hostile president who would immediately begin to undo eight years of conservative progress on the national level?

The Supreme Court factors here again. There is nothing in McCain’s record to indicate that he would pick anything but a strict constructionist for the bench. The Supreme Court is only one vote away from a permanent conservative majority for the next 20 years. If not Bush in the next two and a half years, then the next president will almost certainly appoint that Justice. Fickle movement conservatives, who like their Dailykos-MoveOn.org brethren on the left, those who would rather lose on principle that win power on compromise, have to carefully consider the required level of purity they will insist upon in the spring and fall of ’08. A lot is potentially riding on it.

Maybe the biggest question mark is President Bush himself.  He is not a “legacy fixing” president in the way that President Clinton obsessively tried to steer his role in history during his second term. Still, Bush has to begin to look around and see the unfinished business that will still be on deck in ’09, and he will surely want someone to follow the broad outlines of his policies, the most important being Iraq and the War on Terror.  Repudiation would be the worst of all worlds for him. To do that, the Party needs to back a winner, early. McCain has been steadfast in his support and a pragmatic Bush nod might enable a McCain primary victory, and the best shot for Republicans thereafter.

Conclusion

The irony for McCain is the inverse relationship between Republican political fortunes in 2006 and his own in ‘08. If the GOP manages to maintain control in Congress, McCain’s outsider status may yet again work against him. Establishment Republicans may conclude that the result was proof that nothing was fundamentally wrong within the GOP to begin with.

If on the other hand, the Republicans are blown out, and the Democrats return to power in one house or both, McCain will solidify his status as the pragmatic and consensus choice to stop the Democrats at the doors of the White House. In that role, he could be formidable. As a result, Hillary plotters in NY will soon find that Party success in ’06 isn’t necessarily in their interest either.

Right now, it’s looking like it may be McCain’s to lose.

We’ll see.

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