Monday, August 21, 2006

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Who's going to McCain McCain?

John M. Broder has a story in today's New York Times on John McCain's efforts to monopolize GOP operatives and policy wonks in preparation for 2008:

Senator John McCain is locking up a cast of top-shelf Republican strategists, policy experts, fund-raisers and donors, in a methodical effort to build a 2008 presidential campaign machine, drawing supporters of President Bush despite the sometimes rocky history between the two men....

Other Republican presidential hopefuls are doing likewise, but Mr. McCain is widely judged to be farther along in assembling the kind of national network necessary to sustain a long, expensive campaign for his party’s nomination to succeed President Bush.

At a point in the election cycle when policy positions may be less important than general impressions, the signal Mr. McCain is seeking to send to the Republican Party is that anyone who wants a place on his bandwagon should jump on now.

“We are a party that gravitates toward front-runners,” said Rick Davis, who was Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign manager in 2000....

His still-informal network includes Richard L. Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state; John A. Thain, chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange; and Sig Rogich, who directed the advertising for the 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns of Mr. Bush’s father.

He is reaching out to Christian conservatives, who helped sink his 2000 presidential bid, by enlisting the aid of figures like Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah and former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, both of whom have strong evangelical followings.

His growing kitchen cabinet spans an array of issues and backgrounds, and includes James Jay Baker, a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association; Niall Ferguson, a historian at Harvard; and Barry McCaffrey, who was the drug czar under President Bill Clinton.

There is as yet no formal policy council and no regular meetings of the McCain brain trust, aides said. They cautioned that the senator consults widely and that some of those enlisted as advisers or supporters might not play official roles in his campaign, if he decides to run.

Some figures listed as advisers by McCain aides, like Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state, have been silent in public about their preference, and it is not clear how involved they may become.

Yet the scale and breadth of the list suggest how much time, effort and care Mr. McCain is investing in preparing for a presidential campaign, using the lessons of his race in 2000 and his subsequent effort to rally the party around him.

McCain's list includes a fair number of foreign policy heavyweights -- a telling sign of front-runner status.

This leads to the obvious question -- who's going to play the role of insurgent outsider to McCain's front-runner? At some point, there has to be a media boomlet for a candidate other than McCain. [But the media loves McCain!!--ed. They love a good horse race a lot more... besides, this allows reporters to push the "McCain has changed" meme in the way that rock enthusiasts talk about how they only like early Nirvana.] This candidate will inevitably be painted as an authentic straight-shooter who is somehow more "authentic" than McCain.

According to Greg Mankiw, the only other Republican with an active Tradesports market is Giuliani. While it would be hard to picture neither the frontrunner nor the challenger coming from the Christian conservative wing of the party, it's hardly unprecedented -- look at 1996 or 1988.

Readers are encouraged to offer who they believe will be McCain's McCain. My money is on this man.

posted by Dan on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM


I had lunch recently with a former GOP bigwig (not an elected official, a staffer type), a moderate who now lives in Kansas. He agreed McCain was the front runner, thinks Guliani has zero chance due to social issues and personal life, and while he didn't want to make predictions beyond that, it was notable that our own local boy Sam Brownback never came up in the conversation.

I spent an hour in a roundtable with Browback some time ago. He's reasonably smart -- more so than plenty of other pols I've met -- but I don't think he has the presidential charisma going. If he is the only hardline Christian conservative in the race he might be the outsider ideologue to beat, but I'm fairly sure McCain could do that. Brownback has very little mojo so far. He's very big on intervention in Africa, which does have some crossover appeal to left internationalists but I'm not sure the country will be in a mood for more crusading.

If there is a Kansan on a major party ticket, I think it's more likely to be on the other side: governor Kathleen Sebelius.

posted by: AnIRProf on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

Yes, I do still prefer the sound of Bleach to that of Nevermind or In Utero--pity the songwriting is so much better on the latter two.

Brownback has zero chance, and clearly knows it. Frist has probably worked his way out of contention.

If I were making a long-odds line, Quayle could be a contender, but George F. Allen is still the Golden Boy.

It depends on how soon McCain announces Lieberman as his Vice Presidential candidate, since the names that come to mind as possible rivals would basically all be jockeying for that spot.

posted by: Ken Houghton on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

Who will be McCain's McCain, you ask. It helps to remember what made him Bush's McCain in 2000.

First, there was the sense that Bush's only claim to the nomination in 2000 was dynastic. He had had a short career in Texas state politics, and didn't have the kind of experience or gravitas that, at least on the GOP side, was normal for a Presidential nominee. McCain, in contrast, had the personal and the political resume that was far more typical. His critique of Bush in 2000 was that Bush was too much of an inexerpienced lightweight. Putting aside whether McCain was right in 2000 about Bush, the same claim can not credibly be made about McCain in 2008.

Second, McCain had (and still has) the habit of speaking plainly, even (perhaps most often) when it wasn't in his political interest (at least as conventionally conceived) to address various issues with such candor. That made him a media favorite, and also just someone interesting for the public to listen to. I don't see anyone other than Rudy who can match McCain here, let alone outflank him. The other senators seekig the nomination come across as circumspect, careful, bland almost to the point of give-no-offense timidity -- qualities that are perfectly OK in the Senate but not what one wants in a President.

McCain's weakness in the 2008 race will be his maverick status within the party, his sometimes rocky relationship with religious and social conservatives and his reputedly mercurial temper and odd enthusiasms for a Republican (e.g., campaign finance "reform," global warming). There are many rivals for the nomination who have none of those qualities. The only potential nominee who doesn't is Rudy.

McCain's great strength is that he projects the strong and confident leadership needed to run the war against Islamofascism, and has the skill and experience to do so; and embodies the essential conservative (but not too conservative) principles that unite the disparate factions of the Republican party. And, most important of all, he looks and sounds like a winner against whomever the Dems may nominate.

Again, the only potential nominee out there who rivals McCain on these strengths in a way that the public is likely to engage is Rudy.

In short, this is the odd campaign where the two leading candidates mirror each other's strengths and weaknesses. My guess is that McCain will end up being the more acceptable of the two as the nominee of the Republican party. The only other potential nominee who might make a stir is Romney, but I can't see him ever getting the nod for the top spot on the 2008 ticket.

posted by: RHD on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

I think McCain's biggest weakness is that no matter what he says and does he will forever be attached to Russ Fiengold. Partnering with Ted Kennedy on the amnesty bill probably isn't going to help him much either.

It is terrible to imagine that we could well be faced with a choice between McCain or Hillary Clinton. I couldn't hold my nose firmly enough to vote for either one.

posted by: Stephen Macklin on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

Sounds like McCain is doing what W did.

I recall a conversation about 1997 or 1998 - a Republican operative said then that W had already locked up almost all the Republican money and staff and would be the candidate to beat. He had his father's organization and used it.

posted by: andrwedb on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

The 52nd district in California is basically North County San Diego. Lots of moderate, social libertarian voters. Home to lots of tech and biotech industries. Soccer-mom type suburbs. Being San Diego, a lot of current, retired, or at least guys that have served in the military (Navy!) too. Sounds like McCain country, right?

A few months ago, Brian Bilbray won the district, replacing the disgraced Duncan Hunter. Bilbray's opponent ran on her support of McCain's 'comprehensive' immigration reform. She even ran spots to that effect on the local Clear Channel affiliate. Bilbray ran as a 'no amnesty' candidate. McCain actually snubbed Bilbray, promising to appear at a fundraiser and then failing to show. Bilbray won, the Democratic, McCain supporting opponent lost. 4% of probable Bilbray voters were skimmed off by a Minuteman backed candidate. As far as I could tell, apart from the natural corruption issue, immigration was the major subject of the election.

This is not a perfect test -- it is a Republican district after all. But Bilbray stood directly against McCain's amnesty, and his stand resonated with voters who might have otherwise sought change after the Duncan Hunter scandal. I don't think the Republican base is going to put the John McCain of McCain/Kennedy on the ticket.

Besides, the guy is growing a second head out of his jaw -- he doesn't look like a well man at all.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]


Uh, its late here. Change 52 to 50th and Duncan Hunter to Duke Cunningham.

**Duncan Hunter is in no way disgraced , that was Cunningham.**

The rest is pretty much correct, except Wiki says that McCain relented and voiced support for Bilbray in the latter stages of the campaign. The fact remains, Busby (the Democrat) did run on supporting McCain's 'comprehensive 'immigration platform and she lost.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

While I think Giuliani would be the stronger candidate against Hillary (or any other Democrat), I still can't see how a short, bald, thrice-married New Yorker with an Italian surname and a list of positions on social policy that are anathema to much of the Republican base is going to get by McCain in the primaries. Giuliani's best hope is that McCain self-destructs in some way early in the primaries. (A health scare, for example.)

P.S. Allen has fairly well demolished whatever slim chance he had, Frist is a non-starter, Brownback couldn't place in the top three outside of Kansas, and Romney is going to face insuperable difficulties with that temple underwear.

posted by: slinkybender on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

I still can't see how a short, bald, thrice-married New Yorker with an Italian surname and a list of positions on social policy that are anathema to much of the Republican base is going to get by McCain in the primaries.

I've actually discussed this with some prospective Guiliani voters. Basically, it comes down to repect for cleaning up NYC- a place that was once considered ungovernable- and outright admiration for what he did after the 9/11 attacks.

The man is regarded as someone who is good to have at the helm when it hits the fan, and a lot of Republicans think that's likely to happen in the relatively near future. Basically, they'll give him a pass on the messy personal life on account of the proven leadership qualities. I don't know if they're willing to go so far as to give him a pass on the issues, though.

He can probably surivive being pro-abortion or pro-gun control, largely because McCain is iffy on both issues as well. I don't think he can survive both.

posted by: rosignol on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

McCain has a very solid pro-life record. The NRLC committee faults him for voting for federal money towards embryo destroying research and for McCain-Feingold, but other than that he's voted for pretty much every pro-life bill and amendment.

Iffy is a fair way to describe him on gun control, though. He's not particularly strong either way on the issue; he rarely votes to either establish new controls nor repeal the ones that are already there, and doesn't sponsor regulation.

posted by: John Thacker on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

The biggest beneficiary of the Lieberman defeat in the Connecticut primary was John McCain. The Lieberman defeat is going to embolden the nutso wing of the Democratic primary, which will press to nominate someone in the mold of Gore (the 2000 version, that is) or Dean.

This is a fancy way of saying that there may not be an insurgent challenge to McCain. If the GOP perceives a chance to win in 2008 with McCain, they'll turn to him.

posted by: temoc94 on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

Dick Morris and Ed Kilgore both say Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, is the guy. He was a minister before he became governor. The only thing he's missing is security cred.

posted by: jared on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

McCain has big problems against someone like Allen, in my opinion. First of all, he's always been a senator, and there are good reasons why gubernatorial experience has been found in every President since Ford. Second, he's pissed off every slightly libertarian voter with McCain-Feingold and his public repudiation of the First Amendment. Third, he's pissed off the anti-immigrant crowd, and their enthusiasm level is pretty scary. Fourth, he's too old and looks sick. Fifth, he's seen as a moral preener, more interested in his personal sense of honor than any coherent philosophy of governance. Maybe front-runnerdom will overcome all that, but I'd watch out if Allen or Giuliani or even Gingrich get just a little bit of traction.

posted by: srp on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

I like Huckabee, not necessarily as a nominee but definitely in the role of "McCain's McCain." He's got a good story (and he plays bass in a band - I saw them on C-SPAN the other day).

How come no one mentions McCain's age? He's going to be pretty old in 2008. Isn't that an issue?

posted by: Jesse on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

Not unless the medical examinations turn up signs of alzheimer's or dementia.

70 isn't as old as it used to be.

posted by: rosignol on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

My money is on Jim Gilmore of Virginia. He gave a speech at the California State GOP Convention a few days ago and told them "This is an opportunity for the Republican Party to take the lead- to say we are going to hold the line on taxes and we are going to hold the line on spending." And he's being coy about running for President- the mark of a true candidate:!news

posted by: Insurgent on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

Anyone who believes that the Republican Party will nominate a pro-choice candidate for President, step right this way. I've got a bridge to sell you.

Funny that nobody has mentioned Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich.

posted by: TedL on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

I cannot fathom George Allen's appeal. Suspect significant number of Americans are already in throes of Bush fatigue. Why turn to candidate described as "Bush Lite?"

Main problem with Allen: he is a polarizing figure, and I cannot see how the country can endure another. (This is also why I hope Hillary does not run, although she is by far the better senator.) Virginians remember him well for quote to effect of "Let's enjoy knocking [Democrats'] soft teeth down their whiny throats." Enough already.

Mitt Romney is an appealing speaker. I admire Lindsey Graham for tackling some difficult issues, but he would not contest his ally McCain.

posted by: Lisa on 08.21.06 at 10:04 AM [permalink]

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