KEENE, N.H., April 8 - Senator John McCain began his week by embracing the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the conservative religious leader he once denounced as polarizing. He ended it by joining Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts icon, in a fight for an immigration bill opposed by many conservatives.
It’s dificult to ascertain the political philosophy of a man who would embrace BOTH Jerry Falwell and Ted Kennedy without his head exploding. Given that most people consider one or the other to be the Devil Incarnate, it’s easy to see how McCain’s actions might look like pandering to some (If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything, no?).
There are two ways of looking at this, I suppose. Either McCain is that rarest of political birds- a man whose allegiance is to getting things done, or his only true political allegiance is to himself and whatever it takes to win the Presidency in 2008. Can John McCain be all things to all people? Can he be that most unusual of politicians- a man who has something that will appeal to all voters, regardless of affiliation? Uh, no…not if you’re paying attention.
Mr. McCain has long sought to present himself as a singular sort of American politician ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ straight-talking, iconoclastic and hard to quantify. But as he began a campaign-style trip here that will take him through Florida, Ohio and Iowa, he faced an extraordinarily complex political challenge as he sought to reconcile his appeals to an unusually diverse audience and cement his early standing in the emerging Republican presidential field.
Mr. McCain’s alliance with Mr. Kennedy came as he has embarked on a campaign to repair strains with conservatives and a once-wary Bush White House. He is portraying himself as a lifelong conservative and a steadfast supporter of President Bush, once a political rival, courting his senior staff members and fund-raisers.
He has endorsed Bush tax cuts he once criticized as fiscally ruinous, and agreed to appear at a commencement at Liberty University, headed by Mr. Falwell, whom Mr. McCain once called an agent “of intolerance.”
But a strategy designed to muscle him through the 2008 Republican primaries -should he ultimately run, which aides says is likely but not definite - risks diluting the independent image that has been central to his political appeal. Already, Mr. McCain is facing stiff questions from supporters and critics about how far he will go to win support from conservative leaders who have long been wary of him.
It’s difficult to see how McCain is going to have any possibility of success in the 2008 Republican primary season (How many of his opponents will be running commercials showing him w/ Ted Kennedy?), which generally is the playground of the Party’s Conservative wing. Given that Ted Kennedy is the embodiment of all that’s Evil to most on the far Right, it’s hard to imagine McCain being able to convince primary voters that he hasn’t being fraternizing with the enemy. Still, my curiosity wants to see if he can pull of this “all things to all people” strategy.
“You’re killing me here,” Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, said after introducing Mr. McCain as one of his favorite guests earlier this week. “You’re not freaking out on us ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ are you going into crazy-base world?”
After the reference to his appeal to the party’s conservative base, a laughing Mr. McCain responded, “I’m afraid so.”
In an interview at his Senate office, where he had urged a reporter to watch the Stewart interview on an office computer, Mr. McCain said that he had not changed any position for political reasons, and that he was more conservative than his occasional high-profile breaks with the right might lead casual observers to believe.
But unbidden, he acknowledged the danger of the perception that he has become politically expedient. Mr. McCain said there was “much increased sensitivity for me not to display traces of hypocrisy” because of the way he had defined himself.
Ultimately, I think this perception will doom McCain’s chances in the Republican primaries. Oddly enough, his strategy might stand a greater chance of success in the general election, where he can use it to portray himself as slave to no ideology, but the defender of doing the right thing for the American people. Conventional political wisdom holds that a moderate, particularly one who is all over the map, is going to have difficulty winning over more Conservative Republican primary voters. In a general election, McCain might be able to paint himself as being firmly anchored to the political center, which is the holy grail for any Presidential candidate.
I’m not sure that McCain can pull it off, though I have to admire him for trying. His strategy carries a high risk of being viewed as political opportunism, which is what I think will ultimately doom his viability as a candidate. There are those on both the Right and the Left who will demand ideological fealty as the price of their vote. Few who occupy the left of political center will vote for anyone who cozies up to Jerry Falwell and few of those right of center will vote for anyone who cozies up to Ted Kennedy.
“I would argue that I have not changed any of my positions, and if I did really change my positions on issues, that I would lose what is probably one of the greatest attractions that people have for me, and that is as a person who stands up for what he believes in,” Mr. McCain said, appearing subdued during a break from the debate on his immigration bill. “But you know, I understand why some people would say, ‘Wow!’ when they hear that I’m speaking at Liberty University.”
“I’ve always been a conservative,” he said. “I think my voting record clearly indicates that on economic issues, national security issues, social issues ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ I’m pro-life ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ so I think I could make an argument I’ve had a pretty clear 20-some-year record basically being conservative.”
Mr. McCain’s associates said it would be nearly impossible to win the nomination without quelling concern among conservatives who were, even before his immigration bill ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ a position over which he was attacked by Republicans at two town hall meetings he held during his 24 hours here ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ were concerned by his advocacy of campaign finance laws, a global warming treaty and gun control.
A critical part of Mr. McCain’s strategy to win the nomination is to persuade conservatives to swallow concerns about those views by presenting himself as the most electable Republican because of his appeal to moderates and independents. That distinction could fade should Mr. McCain emerge with a lasting reputation as conservative or hypocritical, his advisers said.
McCain is likely to run up against the political reality that while most Americans hold views that are both Liberal and Conservative, each major party expects ideological fealty. American voters generally appreciate that a Presidential candidate can be Conservative on political issues and perhaps more moderate on social issues. Unfortunately, party leaders cannot. This reality will doom McCain’s candidacy to failure, which, from where I sit, is as it should be. John McCain is the worst sort of Republican- one who is an avowed Conservative and yet endeavors to portray himself in a way that might appeal to more Moderate or Liberal voters. Some might call him a wolf in sheep’s clothing; I simply call him a political opportunist. He might look good on the “Daily Show” set, and he might not be your average stuffed-shirt self-righteous Republican, but he’s still a Republican. McCain supports the teaching of “Intelligent Design”, and his sucking up to Jerry Falwell sure scare the Hell out of any reasonable, thinking human being.
McCain, in bantering with Jon Stewart, may look like a reasonable, moderate Republican with a sense of humore, but he is still a Republican, and he, in order to win the Republican nomination, will have to pledge allegiance to the Republican Party’s platform. He may be wearing sheep’s clothing, but he’s still a wolf. End of story.