If any candidate can transcend the Republicans’ woes, it’s John McCain

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE June 30 2008


If any candidate can transcend the Republicans’ woes, it’s John McCain

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE June 30 2008



If any candidate can transcend the Republicans’ woes, it’s John McCain


If the history of American presidential elections is any guide, John McCain’s chances this year are, simply put, lousy. The incumbent Republican twoterm President has epically low approval ratings, the economy is limping, the housing market is a mess, food and fuel costs are soaring, and for bonus points, McCain is trying to be the oldest guy ever elected to the job. The Republican brand has been so tarnished by deficit spending and unfinished wars that a recent poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal this month found that voters prefer putting a Democrat in the White House over a Republican by 16 points.

But if ever there was a Republican who could transcend Republican woes, it is McCain, who despite drawing history’s short straw has so far managed to keep the race impressively close. Recent polls show a dead heat or a small Barack Obama lead, despite the Demo-

crat’s massive fundraising advantage, legions of enthusiastic followers and hip YouTube videos. Perhaps the long Democratic primary season tarnished Obama’s image as he limped to victory against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Or maybe it’s the fact that voters tend to trust McCain as a strong leader with experience in national security, or admire his track record of bucking his party and actually working across the aisle on high-stakes issues, not just giving speeches about it.

A war hero and political maverick who prides himself on “straight talk,” McCain arrives in Ottawa to deliver a pro-free-trade speech on Friday, and presumably to remind voters back home that his opponent, the senator from Illinois, has talked out of both sides of his mouth on this issue. (In a preview of his comments, McCain told a small business audience on Tuesday: “Unfortunately, Senator Obama has a habit of talking down the value of our exports and trade agreements. He even proposed a unilateral renegotiation of NAFTA—our agreement with Canada and Mexico that accounts for 33 per cent of American exports. But we have a sharp disagreement here that I look for-

ward to debating. If I am elected president, this country will honour its international agreements, including NAFTA, and we will expect the same of others.”)

“John McCain is the one Republican who consistently outpolls the Republican brand,” says Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who was a spokesman for McCain’s former rival, Mitt Romney. “And in this environment it’s to our advantage.” But McCain’s task is daunting. He can’t rely, as Bush did, on simply mobilizing hard-core conservative supporters that make up the base of the Republican party because, frankly, they don’t support him. McCain won the GOP primary contest with only 47 per cent of the vote (by contrast, in 2000, Bush had 63 per cent). He lost most of the South to preacher-turned-governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, and the southwest to Romney. His relationship with the Christian conservative wing of the party, a reliable get-out-the-vote machine, has been tepid. Back in 2000 he called some evangelical leaders “agents of intolerance,” and declared he would never “pander” to them. “If John McCain ran the 2004 base strategy, they know they would lose. They have to run a campaign

that goes beyond base politics, and reach out to disaffected Democrats and Independents,” says Madden.

It may be that McCain is running his outreach campaign out of high-minded rejection of the kind of hyper-partisan strategy practised by Karl Rove, the architect of Bush’s electoral victories. But it’s also his only choice, given his maverick political career and his complicated, almost tragic-comic relationship with George W. Bush. Back in 2000, McCain came tantalizingly close to the nomination with a campaign that, as well as damning certain evangelical leaders, appealed to Independent voters and took on interest groups with curbs on campaign contributions. That primary fight with Bush makes the Clinton-Obama thing look like a highschool romance. Some Bush supporters mounted shady whispering campaigns in the early primary state of South Carolina that McCain’s years as a Vietnam prisoner of war had left him crazy, and that his adopted daughter from a Bangladeshi orphanage was a secret out-of-wedlock child who was black. Nonetheless, McCain loyally campaigned for Bush’s re-election in 2004. At the same time, though, he clashed with him on policy, including voting against Bush’s tax cuts, criticizing the conduct of the Iraq war, and blasting the administration’s detainee policies and interrogation methods. McCain led the fight to pass legislation forbidding torture techniques of anyone in U.S. custody, despite strong resistance from the White House.

Those differences of opinion may not help him much. Now that it is his turn to carry the party banner, not only has the Republican brand been sullied, but the Democrats are doing their best to brand him “McSame” or “McBush.” It could work. Only about one in four in the NBC-WSJ poll claimed to know a lot about what either candidate stands for. Yet three in four expected McCain would follow Bush’s policies closely. “He was defeated by Bush in 2000. He is being defeated by Bush in 2008. Don’t think for a minute that he doesn’t know it,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. McCain’s problem is that with Bush’s popularity at only 25 to 28 per cent of voters, he still needs every one of those Bush supporters to win. Then he needs to double that number—from people who are angry at Bush. “What is the guy to do?” Sabato asks. “He has to take some positions that please the people for Bush, and he has to take some that please the people against Bush.” How exactly can he do that? “Well, gee, that’s tough.”

Here’s how he has been doing it so far.

McCain may have opposed Bush’s tax cuts as a giveaway to the rich, but now he wants to keep them in place, while his own tax policies, estimated to cost US$3.7 trillion in revenues over 10 years, include a cut in corporate income taxes from 35 per cent to 25 per cent, and tax cuts that disproportionately help high-income earners. McCain has long split from Bush by opposing drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, but this week he called for opening up America’s coasts to offshore drilling. Once the champion of immigration reform that would allow undocumented workers to stay in the country, he has over the past year emphasized the need to fortify the border with Mexico. And after championing human rights in detention policy, he was harshly critical of a U.S. Supreme Court decision this month declaring that detainees at Guantánamo Bay are entitled to challenge their detentions in civilian court. He called it “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

McCain’s appeal to Independents includes criticizing how the Iraq war was run. “I have worked with the President to keep our nation

safe. But he and I have not seen eye to eye on many issues,” he says. Among those other disagreements, McCain supports climate change legislation that would cap carbon emissions and create a trading system of the type supported by Obama. And while he offers corporate tax cuts, he also promises a crackdown on corporate abuses, and a return to spending restraint. “In so many ways, we need to make a clean break from the worst excesses of both political parties,” he said last Tuesday. “And for Republicans, it starts with reclaiming our good name as the party of spending restraint. Somewhere along the way, too many Republicans in Congress became indistinguishable from the big-spending Democrats they used to oppose.”

To woo conservative voters, McCain puts the focus on Obama and portrays him as a big ol’ tax-and-spend, weak-kneed-on-defence old-school liberal. “I have a few years on my opponent, so I am surprised that a young man has bought in to so many failed ideas,” he said in a speech the night Obama won the Democratic primary race. “Like others before him, he seems to think government is the answer to every problem; that government should take our resources and make our decisions for us.” Says GOP strategist Madden: “The contrast with Obama couldn’t be more clear, and that is helping. People don’t want their taxes raised by Obama and they don’t want weaker national security. I think what motivates them to support John McCain is the alternative: higher taxes on energy, dividends and small businesses.” Obama of course disputes such characterizations: while he would raise capital-gains taxes, roll back Bush’s tax cuts and raise payroll taxes for people earning more than US$250,000, he still offers tax cuts mainly for the middle class that are estimated to cost the Treasury US$2.7 trillion over a decade. But the “liberal” label is starting to stick. In the NBC-WSJ poll this month, about half of respondents called McCain conservative and a third said he is moderate. Only a quarter called Obama moderate, while six in 10 called him liberal.

But whether all this is enough to unite conservative voters behind McCain remains


to be seen. The Club for Growth, a group of tax-cut advocates, is one of multiple conservative groups that does not plan to endorse McCain even though its executive director, David Keating, says Obama is “wrong on just about every single issue.” The wounds go too deep. “Our members are definitely divided about McCain,” says Keating. “I think people look at his track record on tax cuts and the [campaign finance reform] antifree-speech bill and have never forgiven him.” Conservative activists aren’t just bitter about the positions McCain took, but at the lengths he went to to defeat their tax-cut legislation. “People are wary because of the way he voted against it in 2001 and 2003— and the people he teamed up with to try to scuttle them through amendments,” says

Keating. “He teamed up with Tom Daschle, the leader of the Democratic opposition on the bill!”

The Arizona senator is also known for a hot temper, and harsh sarcasm. “At least some conservative leaders have felt the lash of McCain’s tongue directly, but they’re not wildly enthusiastic. He’s a maverick,” says Norman Ornstein, at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. But, Ornstein notes, some of McCain’s positions, like his proimmigration reform stance that alienated many in his own party, could help him on election day. “McCain has a better chance than other Republicans of bringing over more Hispanic voters who are turned off by the sense that the Republican party has abandoned them,” he says.

Sabato predicts that despite their reserva-

tions, Republicans will rally behind McCain by November. Judging by voter patterns in past elections, he says, Republicans “are intrinsically able to hold their nose and vote for the candidate for whom they have less ardour,” he says. But McCain still faces huge challenges, including his lacklustre public speaking style and a yawning money gap. So far, Obama has raised three times more than McCain—US$265 million to McCain’s US$91 million. “Obama is going to outspend McCain two-to-one or three-to-one. It’s going to be a slaughter financially,” says Sabato. “When you are outspending you get to define yourself and the other guy.”

Some people will see a cruel irony if the “McBush” label sticks. “Obama has tried to bring a different sort of politics, but the ironic

part of this is McCain is the only one who has really done it,” says Keating. “He has worked with people of the other party more than any of the Democratic or Republican candidates.” An ABC News-Washington Post poll published this week found that so far, Independent voters are evenly split between Obama and McCain.

McCain too emphasizes that he has had the guts to take on his party, and Obama has not. “He is an impressive man, who makes a great first impression,” he said in New Orleans on the night Obama won. “But he hasn’t been willing to make the tough calls, to challenge his party, to risk criticism from his supporters to bring real change to Washington. I have.” Now the question is whether those tough calls will bring him the presidency, or put it out of reach. M