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Correction to This Article
The original version of this column referred to John McCain's imprisonment in a Viet Cong cell. He was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese.

The McCain Miracle

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

In the genuine historical miracle of Barack Obama -- it was only 43 years ago, half a historical eye-blink, when African American voting rights remained unsecured -- the political and personal miracle of John McCain has been largely overshadowed.

A year ago this summer, the McCain campaign was a bankrupt political joke; the political class only mentioned it to speculate when it would be mercifully euthanized.

What followed was one of the most improbable comebacks of American political history. The electoral stars aligned into a powerful, unpredicted syzygy: The surge in Iraq worked, the immigration issue faded, the conservative movement did not coalesce around a single opponent. McCain won by shedding his early, bloated campaign structure and emphasizing his own large personality.

The style and approach of general election campaigns are often conditioned by the method of victory in the primaries. The Obama team ends the season like a battle-worn Army division -- organized, relentless and skilled at fundraising, registering voters and getting them to the polls. Members of the McCain team feel more like survivors of a near-death experience -- convinced that the virtues of their candidate and the blessings of the political gods matter more than the money, phone banks and door-knocking of traditional politics.

This worries some Republican strategists. One recently described the McCain campaign to me as the political equivalent of a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie: Every morning a few guys get together and say, "Let's put on a show!" McCain's state campaign organizations, coalition outreach and get-out-the-vote efforts are weak or nonexistent. But McCain campaign officials are convinced that they will win -- if they win -- in a different manner from that of the methodical Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004. McCain will either catch fire, or he won't -- and traditional efforts to boost turnout, in this view, are not likely to make the difference. Given its history, the McCain campaign is understandably proud of its stripped-down, seat-of-the-pants, insurgent style. But it may eventually be useful to have a serious campaign organization in, say, Colorado.

The personal miracle of McCain's presidential run is even more extraordinary. It is obvious -- and therefore often unstated -- that the journey from a 4-by-6-foot North Vietnamese cell to the 36-by-29-foot Oval Office would be unprecedented. It would be as though George Washington were captured by the British, who snapped his legs in a torture cell; or Ulysses Grant were nearly starved to death at Andersonville Prison; or Dwight Eisenhower had been interrogated and beaten by the Gestapo in a German stalag. All three, I imagine, would have been honorable, defiant and arrogant enough to survive. But McCain has proved it.

McCain's experience, unlike some war stories, grows more shockingly impressive upon examination. Physical courage and mental toughness may not be requirements for the presidency, but they are at least as relevant as service in the Illinois legislature. And McCain's election as president would, in its own way, be historic -- finally and fully honoring the lessons of heroism that came out of America's conflicted experience of Vietnam.

All these experiences, political and personal, have created a unique candidate -- a man more driven by instincts of honor than ideology, predisposed to believe in his own virtue, equally predisposed to confuse opposition with dishonor. At its worst, this approach has alienated many of his Senate colleagues, and it reportedly led McCain to the brink of leaving the Republican Party in 2001, more out of pique than principle. At its best, this approach has seemed like a populist, reform-minded conservatism, aimed at breaking up concentrated, selfish interests that threaten the public good -- from his campaign against big tobacco, to his anger at inflated corporate salaries, to his disgust with congressional earmarks and pork-barrel spending, to his support for increased automobile fuel efficiency standards and a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions.

Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution calls McCain's policy agenda "a promiscuous heap of interesting ideas that will not cohere in one administration" -- a judgment some Republicans share. Up to this point in the campaign, the charge has not been much of a problem -- in this environment, a reliable, robotic Republican of the Romney sort would be nowhere near Obama in the polls.

But the personality- and destiny-driven McCain campaign of the primaries is reaching its natural limits. Eventually, a presidential campaign needs a national organization. And eventually, McCain must define McCainism.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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