I'm tempted to put a question mark in the title, but I won't: I think Arizona Senator John McCain is finished as a presidential contender, and maybe as any kind of presence in national politics. As the campaign finance reporting quarter is about to close, McCain is expected to fare no better than third, behind Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani; given his reportedly anemic fund-raising, and with Fred "TV's Fred Thompson" Thompson set to enter the race next week and already polling well ahead of McCain, and the immigration bill he'd publicly supported now dead and buried, and the widely reviled war he still supports in its bloodiest stretch yet, it's impossible for me to see how McCain gets back in the race.
It's simultaneously sad and satisfying. Sad, because I was one of those people in the late 1990s who genuinely liked and admired McCain despite not sharing his views. Primarily I respected his view that getting the thumb of big money off the scale of policymaking represented a quantum leap forward for democracy; and his willingness to take on the established power centers of Washington not just in campaign finance but in military spending and other areas signaled to me that he was a guy who put prinicple ahead of career. And of course, during the 2000 campaign he seemed to be changing before our eyes, speaking truth to power (and to the powerless) and, not incidentally, having a great freakin' time.
Satisfying, of course, because he renounced all that to suck up to George W. Bush, the man whose campaign smeared McCain in the 2000 race, and the Republican establishment. McCain's embrace of Bush became really conspicuous around 2003, but he'd started down that road within weeks of leaving the race in 2000; I remember him getting booed off the stage at Arianna Huffington's "Shadow Convention" in Philadelphia that summer after suggesting to an incredulous crowd that Bush was "the real reformer" in that year's race. It was hard to tell whether McCain, who was transparently enraged, was more upset at the rude crowd or at what he was saying that so provoked them.
Two men could have denied Bush a second term on their own in 2004: Colin Powell and McCain. Given his support for closing the Guantanamo prison and his counseling Barack Obama, Powell seems to regret his complicity in the perpetuation of Bush's misrule; McCain, though, seems to be permanently afflicted with Stockholm Syndrome. He's reaping the whirlwind twice over: the Republican base still detests him for his 2000-era deviations from Supreme Orthodoxy, and now everyone else mistrusts him precisely because he's so assiduously embraced the twisted principles of New Mutant Republicanism.
It's also satisfying when one sees dumbassed eulogies from the group that was McCain's truest constituency back in the day: the punditocracy. Here's Stuart Rothenberg:
Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign (which has plenty of smart people and doesn’t need my advice): Try to get back to McCain’s story.
It isn’t news that McCain’s campaign is staggering under the weight of weaker-than- expected fundraising and poll numbers, criticism from conservatives who don’t trust him, the Senator’s immigration and Iraq positions, and the perception that he’s just another politician.
... I was reminded the other day about the one thing that’s missing from the national coverage of the 2008 McCain campaign that was so prevalent during the coverage of his 2000 White House bid: His life.
As I watched McCain in Iowa and New Hampshire eight years ago, I was struck by how many veterans were in his audiences, and how real people talked and related to him. They saw him as a true hero. Given the recent media coverage of Paris Hilton and the late Anna Nicole Smith, plenty of Americans might well like to hear about a true hero.
McCain continues to talk about many of the things that he did in 2000, including ethics, wasteful spending and national security. And his Web site includes his bio and photographs from the Vietnam era. But things have changed for McCain, in part because the coverage of him is so unlike what it was and in part because the GOP field is different.
McCain has tried to be the conservative candidate, while Giuliani challenges him for party moderates, as well as those wanting a candidate who projects strong leadership on the war against terror. The mayor and Romney (add to them Thompson soon) are fresher faces, at least in a presidential race, than is McCain, and voters always seem smitten with the new guy, at least for a while.
McCain may not be able to reinject his personal story of heroism and service into the national media coverage of his campaign or excite people the way he once did. His military record may be old news to too many people. But his campaign needs to find a way to make John McCain more than just a Washington, D.C., insider and Senator, and his personal story and heroism should be more of an asset now than it is.
I'm not saying Rothenberg is an idiot, but I'm surely saying this is one of the more idiotic articles I've read in a long, long time. He's casting about, really thinking out loud/on the page, for how his boy McCain can save his doomed presidential run, and the best he can come up with is "more biography"?
This makes no sense. McCain probably has higher name recognition than anyone else in the race not named "Hillary Clinton," and more people probably have opinions pro or con about him than any other non-Clinton candidate. You can't reintroduce yourself to people who know you (or think they do). And, as might not be the case with Rudy, the Mittster or TV's Fred, people probably have a fairly accurate sense of who McCain is and what he's about.
McCain probably could have won the presidency in 2004, had he run as an independent (or Democrat, for that matter). He always looked best compared to Bush. But he chose the route of syncophancy, and lost everything. It's all over for him now.