Every presidential contest in the past two decades has produced something of a quasi populist–a mad-as-hell candidate of the left, right or center who runs against the establishment in Washington–and now, apparently, it’s John McCain’s turn. Having demolished George W. Bush, the Republican Party’s designated heir, in New Hampshire, the Arizona Senator has taken his anti- special interest crusade to South Carolina, which holds a primary on February 19. GOP pooh-bahs are anxiously awaiting the outcome, for the results will indicate whether there is a chance this insider-populist who rails against the “iron triangle of big money, lobbyists and legislation” can swipe the party from its guardians and prove that political reform sells, even to a GOP audience.
“After New Hampshire, there was a large amount of consternation among Republicans in Washington,” says a senior GOP aide in the Senate. “There is concern that if Bush doesn’t turn things around damn quickly it could turn into a McCain rout.” Republicans in the capital were unhappy because “people believed we were heading toward a short primary and because Bush was perfectly acceptable to the vast majority of the party–social conservatives, economic conservatives, moderates,” notes Grover Norquist, a lobbyist and conservative activist whose group, Americans for Tax Reform, has attacked McCain’s proposed campaign finance reform. Within GOP circles, panic has not fully set in–not yet. After South Carolina, if McCain should win again, there will be time for panic.
New Hampshire provoked an obvious consensus within the Republican elite: Bush has to change his act to fend off McCain. But how? Bush launched his campaign with a general-election strategy. Though he’s in sync with the dominant right wing of his party–he’s against abortion and gun control, for a huge tax cut, school vouchers and privatization of Social Security–he promoted his made-for-November “compassionate conservatism,” declaring repeatedly, “I’m a uniter, not a divider.” After being clobbered by McCain, Bush turned more confrontational and conservative, and the campaign got nasty. His first stop in South Carolina was Bob Jones University, where interracial dating is banned, and the Bush band began bashing McCain as a liar and as a Democrat in GOP clothing. Bush and his surrogates accused “Chairman” McCain–who accepts donations from corporate lobbyists who have business before his Commerce Committee–of being a phony reformer, claiming that Bush was the real Washington outsider and reformer in the race. (Now, everyone wants to be a reformer.) But after banking $70 million in contributions and bagging thirty-five senatorial endorsements, Bush is hardly positioned to yank the populist crown from McCain. McCain fought back, asserting that he is a true conservative and comparing Bush–ouch!–to Bill Clinton on trustworthiness.
“It’s very difficult,” says Norquist, “to criticize a POW.” Even though McCain boasts a conservative voting record on abortion, gun control and other issues, Norquist considers him an undependable Republican too attuned to the importunings of New York Times editorials: “The right has given him a pass. Nobody, including me, gets up and yells Keating Five, Keating Five.” Will that change? “It’s beginning to,” Norquist says. “And if Bush is able to run as the conservative candidate against McCain the liberal candidate, Bush will win.” The problem for Bush, Norquist adds, is that the Republican Party has moved so far right that it is difficult for Bush to “signal he’s more conservative” than McCain. And if he does, that could cause problems. As Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP consultant in California, remarks, “Some Republicans are worrying that Bush might be pushed too far to the right on social issues, and this will hurt in November.” McCain’s contribution to the presidential race may be forcing Bush to reveal he is a not-so-compassionate conservative and proving that political reform attracts voters.
There is no doubt McCain’s reform talk has propelled his candidacy. In New Hampshire exit polls Republicans, conservatives and independents cited his reform message as a reason for supporting him. His buck-the-party bid has motivated Democratic and independent voters in California and Massachusetts–and perhaps elsewhere–to change their registration to Republican in order to vote for the candidate most likely to crusade. “History will show that reform was the origin of his challenge to the front-runner,” says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a Republican pollster. “Campaign finance reform–a widely embraced but narrowly understood subject–is a proxy for people who have serious concern about the government. McCain is foremost a war hero/POW. After that he’s perceived as a reformer.”
McCain still has daunting institutional barriers to overcome. In South Carolina, a state with notoriously low voter turnout, Bush has access to the local Republican machine. In that state and elsewhere Bush should benefit from the more conservative Steve Forbes’s withdrawal. After South Carolina McCain will have to contend with primaries on February 22 in Michigan and Arizona, and a national Primary Day on March 7–including contests in California and New York. The Bush empire is already working on all fronts. His Austin HQ blasts out faxes by the hour, notifying the world of the campaign’s latest advances–that it has chairmen in all of Ohio’s eighty-eight counties, that Barbara Bush is off to campaign in Virginia, that an ad is airing in Spanish in Arizona (“con George W. Bush, es un Nuevo Dia“), that African-American pastors in Detroit have endorsed Bush and that Bush is scheduled to “talk about his record of reforms” with students.
The coming weeks will tell how far a war hero can take a reform-driven message and whether a persistent inside-the-system critic (whose campaign is crawling with lobbyists) can withstand the predictable accusations of hypocrisy. Has McCain tapped a motherlode of we’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore disgust? Can the Bush forces douse McCain’s fire? “Call me after South Carolina,” Hoffenblum quips.
The best news about McCain for the GOP establishment is that he has frightened Democrats. “The Gore people are scared to death of running against McCain,” says a Democratic Senate aide who works with the Gore campaign. “It’s funny,” observes Fitzpatrick. “The Bush candidacy was sold to Republicans with the argument that he can win and bring in first-time Republican voters–Hispanics, middle-class people, women, independents. Guess what? That’s part of McCain’s appeal. But what angers conservatives and Republicans about McCain is the very same thing causing some of us to start talking about McCain Democrats, a new version of Reagan Democrats.”
Norquist bristles at the thought of a President McCain, but he is willing to concede a positive element to McCain’s populistlike surge: “It’s probably healthy. You had a party where the governors and everybody else got together and said Bush is our guy, and the voters said no. That can be good. It’s problematic to assume people in authority know what they are doing.”