Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 10, 2008
POLITICS: The McCain Temptation
Well, the caucusers have been counted in Iowa and Wyoming, and the votes are in in New Hampshire, and the candidate I have endorsed - Rudy Giuliani - has yet to get off the mat, while one guy we all buried last summer, John McCain, is suddenly in the thick of the race, and could officially claim frontrunner status if he can win the Michigan primary on Tuesday, January 15.
As a result - and I've been building to this for the past two months, so New Hampshire just brings this to a head - I find myself on the horns of a dilemma regarding the 2008 GOP presidential primaries, and I don't mind sharing it with you, dear readers: I'm debating whether it's time to back another candidate besides Rudy - specifically, McCain. I don't do this lightly; I've debated the merits of others in the field before, but I don't shed commitments easily, and my longstanding view is that, having made my choice, I won't switch to another candidate unless and until I'm decided to walk away from the Rudy camp for good. I'm still not ready to do that - but for now, at least, I'm happy to see Senator McCain's victory in New Hampshire, and I even sent a donation his way to help him take on Romney and Huckabee.
As regular readers will recall, while I supported McCain in 2000, I have been a long time supporter of Rudy, having followed his career since the mid-1980s, lived in New York City through his second term as Mayor and been through September 11. I laid out in the summer of 2005 my roadmap for how I thought he could pursue the GOP presidential nomination in spite of his pro-choice, socially liberal record and I came out publicly for Giuliani for president in February 2007. Today, I'll explain why McCain may end up being my guy after all - and why the collective impulse of a lot of us to settle on McCain is tantamount to taking the known divisions within the party and kicking them down the road for the sake of this election, even if possibly at the cost of aggravating them further in the interim.
You Can't Make Me Vote For The Amateurs Or The Sunday Pitcher
While I would vote for any of the Big Five in a general election, I won't repeat here my reasons for considering Mitt Romney an unacceptable choice for the nomination, which I chronicled exhaustively in my "The Trouble With Mitt Romney" series Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. And I will touch only very briefly why I can't support Mike Huckabee. Back when he was a minor candidate I wrote off Huckabee due to the domestic-policy concerns laid out here, including not just his record but his priorities. Just as I was starting to reconcile myself to the idea that we could win a general election with Huck and live with his harebrained economic populism and nanny-statism, however, we got increasing evidence (see, e.g., his Foreign Affairs piece chock full of every discredited Democratic foreign policy cliche in the book) of his unreadiness to be the Commander-in-Chief. On this, I even agree with this guy.
Suffice to say that my presidential choice at this stage - as is true of many conservatives who regard national security as issue #1 during wartime - is thus limited to the three candidates in the GOP field I regard as serious grownups: Rudy, McCain and Fred Thompson. And I explained recently why I'm not backing Fred, much as I like him. Which leaves me two choices: Rudy and McCain.
Schism Today, or Schism Tomorrow?
Let's go back to my test for candidates, as set out in the opener to the Romney series:
1. Can he . . . win the general election?
On #4, while there are differences between Rudy and McCain, I regard both of them as fundamentally trustworthy on the war, ready to step in as Commander in Chief (as ready as anyone can be coming from Congress or state/local government, at any rate) and head and shoulders above the field in both parties in terms of their credibility on this issue, to the point where McCain even won among anti-Iraq War voters in NH. Because I trust both men to protect the nation when the chips are down, that leaves the first three questions.
1. Chasing The Electability Chimera
Here's the irony: one of the reasons I had initially for supporting Rudy was that he's such a great campaigner and debater, and would be a formidable opponent for Hillary (or, now, possibly Obama) in the general election. But right now, there's growing reason to believe that McCain would be the GOP's strongest general election candidate, which I'll get to in a second. Yet, as discussed below, I still think Rudy would be the better president of the two, and that Rudy would advance more of the conservative agenda, while McCain seems more likely to unify the GOP coalition during the campaign and fracture it in office. The decision between the two, therefore, comes down to how we weigh electability against governability as well as its wages in subsequent elections.
I view electability mainly as a floor; if we have multiple candidates who can win, you pick the one you would most like to win. But electability is itself a moving and elusive target. The problem in this election is that the GOP starts in such a bad place, against such well-known and well-funded Democratic opponents, and the stakes in this race are so high (at least in terms of the war, the courts and taxes; I'm far less optimistic than in 2000 or 2004 that we can move the ball on any other domestic legislative priorities of consequence in the next four years) that electability looms larger than it has in years past.
McCain consistently polls better than any other Republican in projected head-to-head matchups, especially in the key swing state of Ohio, without which no Republican has ever won the White House (Adam C has covered this extensively). I personally don't take polls 10+ months before an election as terribly strong evidence, given the things that can change in the course of a contested campaign, but it is one piece of data to consider.
There are two considerations that carry more weight than polls, at least at this stage, in determining electability. One is gained from watching the candidate and his campaign in action. On that score, neither McCain nor Giuliani has run the best of campaigns (given their strong positions this time a year ago, neither is in the position they should be in), but both remain excellent candidates - eloquent, funny, quick on their feet, thoroughly at home with their reputations as rough-edged tough guys and long experienced in taking shots from both sides of the aisle. Both men should fare well in providing either the charisma and humor that's lacking in Hillary or the spine and gravitas that's lacking in Obama. Neither should be taken lightly in a debate.
Since it takes two to get votes (the candidate and the voter), however, the other part of the electability equation is what voters they will appeal to. And here is where Rudy's flaws as a candidate require serious thought. Two stand out. I've spent a lot of time arguing with people about these issues, but I hope nobody came away with the impression that I don't take them seriously. They are, in fact, the main reasons to worry about Rudy in November.
The first is his liberal record and positions on social issues, mainly abortion. There are some conservative voters who simply will refuse to pull the lever for Rudy, even knowing that the result could be handing the control of the courts and the rest of the social-issue agenda to Hillary Clinton. I've argued repeatedly that this is daft, but that's beside the point; the point is that it's a feature of the map as real as any other. Nobody really knows how many such voters there are, and certainly a lot of them are likely to reside in solid-red states in the Deep South. But at least some will likely be in states we need to win. There are also the "What's The Matter With Kansas" voters, for whom the pro-life/social conservative banner is the main or only reason they vote GOP. Again, it can be hard to put a number on these voters but in past years they have been crucial to GOP candidates winning LA, AR, KY, WV, in some cases OH and IA, and staying competitive in PA & MI (although PA also has a lot of socially liberal Rs, so the tradeoffs there are debatable).
If you go back to my 2005 roadmap, Rudy has actually done most of the things I suggested to try to build bridges to these voters. He's appeared at the right events, he's met with the right leaders and even won a few endorsements, he's treated SoCons with respectful and solicitous language, he's made the necessary "do no harm" promises on a host of issues and changed his positions around the margins (e.g., partial-birth abortion), he's surrounded himself with a great group of advisers on judicial conservatism, and he's beaten the drum for judges, judges, judges.
I never thought Rudy could credibly come out to call for banning abortion; but he could have run as a clearer pro-choice/anti-Roe candidate, and laid out a fuller, more compelling story of why social-issue federalism should appeal to culture warriors on both the Right and the Left. He hasn't. He blew an early debate answer by waffling on whether a 'strict constructionist' judge would need to vote to overturn Roe; a guy with a pro-life record could afford ambiguity on that question, but Rudy couldn't. I may post at some point the precise framing of the issue that I think he needed to pursue, but I no longer expect anything new on this front from him; he's stuck with the residual mistrust that his abortion position created, and we go to war with that in our nominee or we don't.
Social conservatives are the only faction of the party Rudy has a real problem with; he's run as far or further to the right of everyone in the field on national security and economic issues, he's fairly successfully used his law enforcement creds to wend his way to the middle of the field on immigration, and he's benefitted from the complete demise of any national impetus for gun control (the silence that followed the Virgina Tech shootings was tellingly deafening). Ironically, given the importance of Supreme Court nominations, Rudy could actually end up mending fences in office with good judicial nominations and fidelity to the "do no harm" agenda. But he has to get there first - so the schism comes to the fore now, during the election season.
The second electability issue Rudy brings is his personal life - and it becomes a more significant issue if running against Obama than if the opponent is the Clinton Traveling Soap Opera. I will admit that I probably underestimated quite how badly this could hurt Rudy, since it was already a very well-known aspect of his life, and one that most people could balance against his extensive public record. But what happened to Rudy is very easy to explain: a spate of stories in early December 2007 about police details for Judith Nathan during the secret portion of their affair and the collapse of Rudy's second marriage did what no story had done before, and tied the issue to Rudy's capacity as Mayor. And the result, more than anything else, was devastating to Rudy's standing in the polls:
The state-by-state results were worse, essentially driving Rudy out of races that had once looked competitive for him in New Hampshire and Michigan. It hardly mattered that most of the stories had little substance to them and fell apart on closer examination. What mattered was that it moved a lot of voters from thinking of this as old news to worrying that there were other shoes to drop. Combined with the ugly overhang from the decline and fall of Bernard Kerik, that issue as well is likely to dog Rudy going forward.
Now, there remains a good possibility that once we get down to a two-person general election race, Rudy can offset a lot of these problems by reaching into areas where the GOP has done poorly in recent years. He'll undoubtedly be competitive in states like PA & NJ that the Democrats absolutely must win. But "competitive" doesn't win elections, and so the Rudy strategy of widening the number of states in play could still turn out to be a case of just stretching resources too thin, especially in Northeastern states where urban Democratic machines have ground games that always win the close ones.
Rudy thus faces a two-pronged electability problem; McCain doesn't. The only GOP faction that really regards McCain as anathema is the immigration hawks, but I continue to doubt how large that group really is (especially the segment that voted for Bush). McCain may thus be able to cobble together a lot of different factions of the party that consider him better than the worst option in the field. His wry personality, long tenure in office, national visibility, war hero status and genuine credibility on national security all add up to the makings of a consensus candidate that may be nobody's first choice, but could keep the party from fracturing along its various fault lines long enough to hold the White House.
2. So We Won. What Do We Do Now?
So yes, I think McCain is electable, at least as electable as anybody in the GOP field. And I'm no longer sure whether or not Rudy is. And I can live with McCain as the nominee. But that doesn't mean I'm leaping to his banner, either.
First, I think Rudy would be a better and in practice more functionally conservative president. I explained this in my original Rudy endorsement: McCain has no executive experience; Rudy is the most gifted and accomplished public executive of the past two decades. Rudy is a prioritizer who wants to cut taxes and spending across the board and has a record of doing so; McCain has tended to pick even his spending battles on small-dollar pork projects (although he did oppose Bush's prescription drug boondoggle) and stood vocally against Bush's tax cuts. While I think all five major GOP candidates would be good on judges but I trust none of them except Fred 100% on the issue, I think it more likely that Rudy will listen to his advisers on this issue and try to establish a good process, whereas I still worry that McCain might prioritize his campaign finance crusade, which will never be blessed by judges who take the Constitution seriously. McCain is more likely to pursue death to conservative priorities by a thousand cuts in the regulatory agencies, environmental policy, etc.
More to the point, not only is Rudy more conservative on the issues that are the bread and butter of the President's daily business and traditional Article II powers, but it's McCain's style that worries me. We all know too well (see here and here for good analyses) how McCain has over and over and over sought to triangulate, putting himself in the middle to media plaudits, with GOP conservatives left out in the cold. Rudy, while he's mistrusted by the Right on some discrete issues, isn't like that; he's more naturally a polarizing figure who is likely to pick a lot of fights with the Democrats just because that's who he is. But a McCain presidency would likely wear down frustrated conservatives over time. The fact that he aggravates nearly everyone in the party a little can be papered over for an election season, but it will wear as time goes on, and wear badly.
McCain will turn 72 in August; he's just a year younger than Reagan when he pursued his second term. It's highly likely that after four years of him, either he will wear out and not run for a second term, or conservative patience with him will exhaust and lead to a nasty primary battle against an incumbent. If we line up now behind him, we can perhaps avoid splitting the party in this election, and the rewards, particularly due to McCain's leadership in wartime, may well be worth the cost.
But we can't fool ourselves that a McCain nomination wouldn't prevent a schism in the party, it would only delay one and perhaps redraw the lines into a more traditional moderates vs. conservatives battle. Which is one reason why, even though I've been happy for McCain's recent rise, even though I may well end up in his camp, even though I've even recently given him money, I'm not yet ready to throw my support behind the senior Senator from Arizona. The McCain temptation puts us to a choice: if we follow him into battle today and win, we will probably end up fighting him tomorrow. That may be a deal worth making, but it's still a compromise, and one on which the bill will eventually come due.