Sounds Nice, But Will It Get Votes?

By Matthew Continetti
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Republicans gather for their presidential convention in the Twin Cities this week to nominate Arizona Sen. John McCain, a man who "brings a lifetime of experience to the campaign," who exhibits "personal courage and heroism," and who "has shown his independence of right-wing orthodoxy on some very important issues." And that's just what Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Bill Clinton have to say about him.

They are not alone, of course. In the occasionally entertaining and often bizarre menagerie that is today's Republican Party, McCain is that rarest of animals: Someone whom plenty of Democrats like. This isn't an accident. Over the years, in private and in public, in affairs foreign and domestic, McCain has cultivated a reputation for bipartisanship, for confronting interests in both parties, for -- as his PR team says -- putting "country first." It's the type of selflessness that pays political dividends. In a year when partisanship is a liability, McCain can plausibly claim that he is the true "postpartisan" in the race for the White House. He has crossed more party lines, angered more ideologues and won over more converts than Sen. Barack Obama.

And it may cost him the presidency.

This is less of a paradox than it may seem. Obama has spent only a few years in Congress, where he has quickly fallen into lockstep with his party's left wing. The Republicans with whom he has joined hands are few. McCain, however, is a creature of the Senate. He understands that bipartisan cooperation and compromise are the way to pass legislation there. But what works for a senator doesn't necessarily help a presidential candidate. Lord Palmerston may as well have been talking about U.S. politics when he said that there are no permanent allies, just permanent interests. And the permanent interest of every politician is to gain more power. Allies are ancillary. Most pols toss friendships aside like dirty laundry.

Consider the lineup of speakers at the Democratic National Convention last week, which so often resembled a who's who of McCain's close friends and collaborators. There was Ted Kennedy, with whom McCain has worked to reform America's dysfunctional immigration policy; Tom Daschle, who worked with McCain in the 1990s to defang the tobacco industry; John Kerry, with whom McCain voted against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. Don't forget the Clintons, either. Hillary is McCain's erstwhile drinking buddy -- the two reportedly did shots of vodka together on a congressional trip to Estonia in 2004. And McCain supported her husband's intervention in Kosovo in 1999, trying hard to rally Republicans around an asssertive, internationalist foreign policy.

What did all this bipartisanship get McCain? A litany of attacks. In Denver last week, Democrats charged that McCain's presidency would be another four years of George W. Bush's. McCain, the Democrats said, is not the "change we need." In fact, he will be "more of the same" and will lead a "government where the privileged few come first and everyone else comes last." (That final quote? It's from Hillary Clinton. Chances are, she and McCain won't be going to Estonia again anytime soon.)

Aisle-crossing may have helped McCain pass legislation. But it has neither inoculated him against Democratic criticism nor eased the concerns of ideologues in his own party. The research remains inconclusive, but John McCain is probably the single leading cause of heartburn among conservative activists. Right-wingers passionately defend McCain's support for the surge strategy in Iraq, true. And his deviations from party orthodoxy lend credence to his postpartisan reputation. But that's the problem. Those deviations also nearly cost him the GOP nomination. And they dampen party regulars' enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Take your pick: Immigration reform may be the most prominent issue on which McCain is at odds with his party's grass roots. But there are lots of others. His campaign finance reform, co-sponsored with Democrat Russ Feingold, is a mess of a law that has done nothing to take money out of politics, has led to a flurry of litigation and has restricted free speech. He embraces a cap-and-trade regime to reduce greehouse-gas emissions that would vastly expand the government's regulation of the economy, all with uncertain environmental results. On abortion, McCain has pledged that his administration will oppose it, and his voting record suggests that this will be the case. But he has also done all he could over the years to muddy the public's understanding of his position. Many voters mistakenly believe that he is in favor of abortion rights. Some pro-lifers question where he really stands on the issue. His recent public flirtation with a pro-choice vice-presidential pick, before settling on Alaska's pro-life Gov. Sarah Palin, temporarily deepened these fears.

McCain's ideological flexibility has broadened his appeal among independents and Democrats. But that flexibility is also a trap. To quell the incipient rebellion on his right during the Republican primaries, McCain shifted in a conservative direction on a variety of issues. He made amends with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom he had once called an "agent of intolerance." He stopped talking about regularizing the status of illegal immigrants already in the United States and called to renew and extend the Bush tax cuts. He thereby opened up a space for Democrats to accuse the "maverick" of caving in to the right wing.

It's a space that McCain's opponents are happy to fill. They attack him as irresolute. A panderer. A man who has betrayed his true self. Which leaves McCain torn. He twists in every direction -- right, center and left. This confuses voters. They want certainty. That is one reason why, in poll after poll, McCain's base supporters seem less enthusiastic about his candidacy than Obama's do about his. Less enthusiasm means lower turnout, which means less of a chance of President McCain. Obama, by contrast, is an orthodox liberal, one of the most liberal senators in the country. This may turn off Republicans and many independents, but it energizes Democrats. Liberals know that they'll have one of their own in the Oval Office if Obama wins.

Now, it would be unfair to McCain to suggest that his broad appeal is really a disadvantage. He may depress some conservatives, but he stands to pick up many independents and even some Democrats. Indeed, polling indicates that the percentage of Democrats who support McCain is higher than the percentage of Republicans who support Obama. There may be fewer self-identified Republicans nowadays, but there are also plenty of newly minted McCainiacs, voters who disagree with Obama's knee-jerk liberalism and worry about his youth and inexperience.

No one personifies these converts more than the independent Democrat Joe Lieberman, who will address the Republican convention tomorrow. Eight years ago, Lieberman was one Supreme Court justice away from serving as Al Gore's vice president. Today he is a man without a party, a proud liberal who, because of his support for the Iraq war, has been under assault for years by the antiwar activists who dominate the Democratic machine. You can't get much more "postpartisan" than that.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company