Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 30, 2008
POLITICS: McCain to Win
It comes to this: John McCain and Mitt Romney. Rudy's out, and Huckabee is finished but will likely stay in the race as long as there is a race to stay in. More on them at another time, for we Republicans have a decision to make, and an important one: fall in behind the newly cemented frontrunner, John McCain, or stage a last-chance, rearguard action behind Mitt Romney. I'm sure I will not surprise anyone who has been reading my writings on this race these last few months when I say that I am supporting McCain, and hoping that the Party gets behind him quickly when and if, as seems likely, he sweeps a number of large states on Super-Duper Tuesday six days from now.
As I previously explained at some length, I am, like Martin Knight, under no illusions about the nature of a McCain presidency, which would undoubtedly lead to a lot of bad consequences for conservatives on a whole range of issues and would almost certainly lead a divided and demoralized party to a bloody and potentially disastrous schism by 2012. I'm not going to sell you on McCain's specific policies other than to point out the obvious, which is that he would be far better on the war, the courts, taxes, spending and entitlements than Hillary or, should the improbable happen, Obama. (I may return another day to what I think McCain could accomplish in office, specifically the hope I had in supporting him 8 years ago that he may yet be the man who can actually do something about the entitlements crisis; I would also remind McCain's critics that the man cast tough votes to put Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court, and to oppose Bush's expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs). But as Ben Domenech has set out brilliantly, this election is so important at such a critical juncture that I am willing to make that deal to win it - and I believe with all my heart that McCain can win this race and Mitt Romney cannot.
I will address below three main points:
1. Why I think McCain can win, and specifically why I think analogies to John Kerry and Bob Dole are misguided.
2. Why I think Romney can't win and would be a bad candidate to lose with.
3. Why we need the primaries wrapped up quickly now that we are down to a more traditional two-man race.
I. McCain Can Win.
As Adam C has noted, McCain has now vaulted ahead of Hillary and Obama in head-to-head polls. I don't pay a ton of attention to such polls this early before a nominee has been settled on, and that undoubtedly reflects the wave of good press for McCain as he gathers momentum, as well as the wave of bad press emanating from the nasty, racially divisive Hillary-Obama race. Still, it's a reminder that McCain can reach people in the general electorate at a time when the GOP is at something of a low ebb, and that's worth keeping in mind when discussing how.
A. The Silver Lining In McCain's Moderation
I have emphasized for a reason that ideas don't run for president, people do. Sure, some voters vote on issues, and candidates' handling of the issues also tells us things about their personality and philosophy and values that form a more general impression for the voters. (E.g., "I voted for it before I voted against it."). But the majority of voters are to be reached fundamentally by a sense of whether or not they like and trust the candidate and the general impression they have of what the candidate stands for.
McCain's defining feature is still his sense of personal honor, duty and patriotic service, and those are not characteristics to sneeze at; they will play well on the trail. He is still the man who could say with seriousness and dignity, as he did when casting an unpopular vote to remove Hillary's husband from office:
All of my life, I have been instructed never to swear an oath to my country in vain. In my former profession, those who violated their sworn oath were punished severely and considered outcasts from our society. I do not hold the President to the same standard that I hold military officers to. I hold him to a higher standard. Although I may admit to failures in my private life, I have at all times, and to the best of my ability, kept faith with every oath I have ever sworn to this country. I have known some men who kept that faith at the cost of their lives.
Step back from the many detailed disputes we conservatives have with McCain, and you can see why a lot of Republicans are fine voting for McCain, but also why a lot of independents and moderate Democrats are too. From a distance, the public image of McCain is indeed a guy who is conservative on core issues: a foreign policy hawk who made supporting the Iraq War his signature issue, a fighter against wasteful government spending, a man who opposes tax hikes and abortion, supported conservative judges and even fought against President Bush on expanding Medicare. Yet, it's also an image that sands down what a lot of moderates see as the rough edges of conservatism on the environment, "torture," immigration, and a variety of Beltway-scandal type issues. Fairly or not, that picture is an appealing one to the general public, especially when combined with McCain's own war-hero status. Spend some time talking to non-political people and non-Republicans about McCain and Romney and I guarantee you they will have a much greater openness to McCain than to Romney. That matters a lot.
Recalling that President Bush's approval ratings remain terrible (though not as bad as those of the wimpy, defeatist Congressional Democrats, from whom McCain is also easily distinguishable), consider Jay Cost's analysis of the Florida exit polls:
McCain once again won those who are disenchanted by the Bush presidency. Most Florida Republicans (68%) approve of the Bush administration. Romney won them, 35% to 31%. McCain, however, scored an overwhelming, 22-point victory among the 32% of voters who disapprove. I think this is one of the evolving stories of the Republican contest. If you like Bush, you are inclined to Romney (or one of the other candidates, all of whom but Ron Paul do better among Bush supporters than Bush opponents). If you dislike Bush, you are inclined to McCain.
Add in McCain's personality (more on this later), and you can see why he presents a particularly formidable general-election candidate, especially when matched against Hillary, who I regard now once again as almost certain to win her party's nomination by whatever means necessary.
B. He's Not Kerry or Dole
Critics of the "electability" argument often point to the Democrats' 2004 nomination of John Kerry, a nomination of a Senator and putative war hero made with both eyes on electability, as a cautionary tale. Critics of McCain often point to Bob Dole, another Senator and war hero, as a parallel for why McCain would be a weak candidate. There are indeed some similarities - all three Senators were "settled on" without being really the top choice of almost anyone in their party, and McCain like Kerry went from frontrunner to dead and buried in the summer and fall to suddenly revived at the last minute - but like Kerry's beloved Vietnam-Iraq parallels, the differences are just as important.
1. McCain's actually a good candidate.
Kerry was in a bunch of obvious ways (see here and here) a crummy candidate, and had Democrats listened to us Republicans who had watched the man at any length, they would have realized that. The fact that Democrats thought he was electable just proved how blinkered they were, for example overlooking a huge vulnerability (the longstanding animosity of Vietnam vets towards Kerry's behavior after returning from Vietnam in the early 70s) and mistaking Kerry's war record for actual credibility on national security. (An added bonus is that Kerry's war record failed to impress many of his fellow veterans, which is plainly not true of McCain. A number of the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" knew McCain from being POWs and support him now).
Dole, burned by the coverage of his acid tongue in 1976 and his temper in 1988, was overly cautious on the trail, and struck people as too old compared to the vigorous, glamorous Bill Clinton. By contrast, McCain, despite his age, is fast on his feet and charming in his own brusque, short-fused way, and is unafraid to basically be himself. In Hillary, moreover, he is likely to face an adversary who is herself not the picture of youth and is about as un-charismatic as you could be.
McCain's age worried me a lot more a year ago before watching him on the trail. Obama, who could easily be McCain's son age-wise, has seemed exhausted and grouchy more often than McCain.
2. McCain's not running against an incumbent.
This ought to be an obvious point, but it gets missed a lot. Kerry, for all his problems, did not do so badly at the end of the day for a candidate running against an incumbent in wartime with a strong economy and a united party at his back. Despite the palpable lack of enthusiasm for Kerry in his own party, you could not argue (as with Al Gore) that the man lost because he failed to get his own supporters to show up and vote. He lost because the incumbent had a great turnout of his own and won over many people who didn't vote for him four years earlier. The same is true to a lesser extent of the Clinton-Dole race - Clinton was a popular incumbent, there was never any doubt that Democrats would be united behind him (he was able to start pounding Dole with TV ads in mid-1995, whereas Hillary is still tied up with Obama). The fact that Kerry and Dole lost to incumbents says little enough about McCain.
3. McCain is just fine with moderates.
This is related to the points I made above: Kerry was the very caricature of a Massachusetts liberal, so it should not have surprised anyone that the general electorate would view him as less electable than the Democratic primary electorate. McCain's problem is with conservative Republicans, not 'swing' voters. And conservatives by and large will come out to vote against Hillary for the same reasons the lefties came out against Bush in 2004. The contrast between McCain's "bipartisan maverick" cred and Hillary's deep, bitter divisiveness is a perfect recipe for a McCain victory.
4. There's a war on.
Dole's war-hero status, long experience in Washington and general foreign policy credibility didn't count for much in 1996 because national security wasn't a major issue in that campaign. In 2008, it's unavoidable.
II. What's The Point of Losing With Romney?
I have explained at enormous length previously (see here and go back to the prior 4 installments, as well as here, here and here for more recent, specific issues) why I think Romney - unlike McCain - is a weak and ultimately unelectable general election candidate, as well as less reliable as a Commander-in-Chief than McCain (RedState's gamecock, no McCain fan, summarizes the latter point here). And let's not forget priceless moments on the trail like this one, as well as Ben's analysis. Let's just review a couple of items here to sum up.
A. No Hablo Espanol
First, check the exit polls: McCain beat Romney 51-15 among Latino voters, with Mitt trailing Rudy by 10 points in that demographic as well. Even recognizing that Florida's Latinos are dominated by Cuban-Americans who may have their own reasons for preferring McCain, this is a very important demographic group and a growing one in critical states. GOP support among Latinos grew under Bush and has plummeted in the past two years, undoubtedly due at least in part to the number of Latinos who view hardline rhetoric on immigration with distaste or even fear.
Like it or not, the GOP cannot be competitive in the short or the long term if Latino voters become as solidly Democratic as African-Americans are. McCain's record on immigration is too far to the left for my taste, but it's bound to burn fewer bridges than Romney's approach. It's not just that Romney's an immigration hardliner, but that he really plays into every negative stereotype of the immigration hardline politician: an opportunist and panderer who only jumped on this issue when he ran for president, a man born to wealth who wants to crack down on the very people who mow his lawn. True, Romney would appeal to the tiny though growing slice of the population that is both Latino and Mormon. And true, much of that is unfair, but political realities are no less real for being unfair.
I know some immigration hawks will be upset at all this, and are the one group within the party that really might bolt over a McCain nomination. Look, I think he's been bad on illegal immigration too, and I think McCain's promise to do more on the border is likely to hold only for about two years, but at the end of the day there's just no evidence that there are or ever have been enough single-issue immigration hawk voters to be a factor in a national election. Whereas there is substantial evidence that there's a whole lot of Latinos, and an increasing number, and evidence as well that as a group they are likely to react poorly to a candidate who seems to be demagogic on this issue.
B. No Hablo Ingles, Either
Second, I've covered this issue at length before, but consider this frank discussion by Ana Marie Cox of the mood of the press covering Romney in Michigan, as evidenced by his clash with a whiny, gotcha-minded reporter over the roles of lobbyists in the Romney campaign:
One of the hallmarks of the Romney campaign is the way reporters, barred from access to the actual candidate, spend the journey from event to event talking about the candidate's latest distortions/exaggerations/evasions. So no wonder Johnson boiled over.
The specific issue is the danger created by Romney's lack of candor. Now, I'd like to be precise here. Candor isn't the same thing as honesty; basically all politicians can get caught at times bending the truth until it begs for mercy, whether deliberately or not. And it isn't the same thing as sincerity; all politicians at times pander to voters, donors, the media, etc. Neither McCain nor any of the other major Republican candidates in this race are immune to these.
But Romney has stuck out in this field because McCain, Huck, Rudy and Fred are all remarkably candid candidates, prone to one extent or another to going off-message, shooting the breeze with reporters, telling spontaneous and sometimes ill-advised jokes and uncomfortable truths, chewing out hecklers. McCain is a master of all these, and is beloved by the reporters who cover him for this at least as much as for his willingness to rip his own party. You can see this in the coverage even by lefty pundits like Cox who think McCain is a lunatic warmonger.
A highly disciplined, never-off-message corporate-communications style campaign, as run previously by MBA George W. Bush and as being conducted by former corporate lawyer Hillary Clinton, has its benefits: fewer opportunities for gaffes, fewer leaks. But the downside is this: reporters need something to write about. Most reporters are perfectly happy filling otherwise-vacant column-inches (and their TV/radio/cyberspace equivalents) from time to time by regurgitating press releases and talking points; it's easy work. But it's not what they got into reporting to do on a daily basis, and they crave authenticity and unscripted moments that give them a chance to flex their poetic-insight chops. A candidate who never gives the reporters anything but the canned message of the day to talk about creates a news vacuum, and as the Bush years vividly illustrate, that vacuum will often be filled by people who hate the candidate with an incandescant passion.
C. Going Down With A Picture of A Ship
Third, Romney's efforts to appeal to core conservative values should not be confused with credible advocacy of conservative principles. The recency of Romney's convsersion to the conservative cause doesn't just make him an untrustworthy leader but also a less than credible spokesman, since it's hard to convince people of ideas you yourself didn't believe in not so very long ago and seem to have embraced for purely opportunistic reasons. Some say that Romney appeals more to the "three legs" of the GOP "stool". But if national security, economic and social conservatism are the three legs, principled leadership is the seat. And if, like Romney, you try to sit on a stool with three hasily assembled legs and no seat, all you get is three poles up your butt. While Romney has had more success of late running as himself, a Mr. Fixit from the business world, his technocratic appeals to managerial omniscience divorced from principle rightly went out of style after Herbert Hoover.
As I have argued in the context of judicial nominations, sometimes the fights you are best positioned to win are the ones that are worth losing. But other than the fact that he can self-finance and avoid wasting other people's money, and perhaps the cementing of the Mormon vote (which is already a GOP stronghold), I don't see what could possibly be accomplished for conservatives long-term by losing with Romney. His transparent lack of principle makes his campaign the polar opposite of the conservative-activist-spawning runs of Goldwater in '64 and Reagan in '76. As noted above, he could turn off Latino voters, and if there really are a lot of anti-Mormon evangelicals, they could stay home and cost us races down-ticket. His record as a party-builder is non-existent. Unlike a McCain loss, a Romney loss would not be easily blamed by conservatives on an excess of moderation. Not only is he likely to lose with a lot less dignity than McCain might, he's highly unlikely to accomplish anything along the way.
III. Time To Pick A Nominee
Romney now trails in the delegate count 93-59, and faces a four-pronged problem on Super Tuesday: (1) McCain just got a big momentum boost, (2) McCain was already leading in a number of the states on the 2/5 schedule, (3) McCain seems likely to gain a lot of moderate Republicans who would have supported Rudy in big states like NY, NJ, IL and CA, and (4) with only a few days to go, Romney has only limited ability to turn that around by spending more of his own money, which he now seems gunshy about doing.
That could leave him trailing heavily after Tuesday even if he does win a handful of states. And if he does so, it's time for Mitt's remaining supporters to close ranks behind McCain.
Historically, the party that unites first behind a nominee wins. It's especially important for Republicans to do that this year, given the massive war chests held by the two Democrat contenders and the bruises left within the party by what has already been a long and contentious process. But just when the rest of us are heaving a sigh of relief that McCain, whatever his flaws, might yet lock this up before the bitter race war is over on the Democratic side, however, Hugh Hewitt wants to don the Mao cap and start the Long March:
Huck's voters are conservative or very conservative, and if they stay with Huck because they like him better than Romney, they hand the nomination to McCain.
This way lies madness, to say nothing of madness for the sake of ... Mitt Romney? Compare Romney to Reagan '76 all you like (and remember that the cost of losing in '76 was the Carter Administration), but to paraphrase Bill James, Romney is no more the embodiment of the Reagan coalition than a bearskin rug stuffed with hamburger is a bear. If McCain wins the handful of big states and his home state on 2/5, it should be over, for the good of the party, and for all of our sanity, so we can go back to beating the Democrats like a drum.
As I have said before, I think McCain's age, combined with his breaks with conservatives, make him an unlikely candidate to serve two terms, and a likely one to face a primary challenge in 2012. That may end up being for the best. But for now, he's the best of the two remaining choices in terms of giving us a chance to accomplish the most important things we as conservatives hope to do in the next four years. Let's get behind John McCain all the way to the White House.