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What We've Learned About McCain

Sen. John McCain at a rally in Fayetteville, N.C., on Tuesday.
Sen. John McCain at a rally in Fayetteville, N.C., on Tuesday. (By Stephan Savoia -- Associated Press)

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By David S. Broder
Thursday, October 30, 2008

As we near the end of another presidential campaign, it is useful to ask ourselves what we have learned about the candidates that we did not know before. When you reflect back on all the rallies, the speeches, the ads and the debates, what insights have you gained about their goals, their methods, their characters? I will turn to Barack Obama next, but today's subject is John McCain.

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We knew a great deal about him from the past. We knew that he was a product of the military elite, the son and grandson of admirals, imbued with the patriotic impulses and the sense of duty to country that is his family tradition. We also knew that he had the capacity and willpower to endure and resist the terrible abuse he suffered in a North Vietnamese prison camp.

We knew that he had the backbone to set his own course -- a rebel defying authority -- and that he carried that trait into politics, often challenging the leaders of his party and the wishes of his fellow Republicans. We also knew that he had a temper, redeemed by a self-mocking sense of humor, and we knew that he had a capacity for building genuine friendships across party lines.

We suspected, and soon had confirmed, that he had limited interest in, and capacity for, the organization and management of large enterprises. His first effort at building a structure for the 2008 presidential race collapsed in near-bankruptcy, costing him the service of many longtime aides. From beginning to end, the campaign that followed has been plagued by internal feuds and McCain's inability to resolve them.

The shortcoming was intellectual as well as bureaucratic. Like Jimmy Carter, the only Naval Academy graduate to reach the Oval Office, McCain had an engineer's approach to policymaking. He had no large principles that he could apply to specific problems; each fresh question set off a search for a "practical" solution. He instinctively looked back to Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive era, with its high-mindedness and disdain for the politics of doling out favors to interest groups. But those instincts coexisted uneasily with his adherence to traditional, Reagan-era conservatism -- a muscular foreign policy, a penchant for tax-cutting and a fondness for business.

McCain was handed a terrible political environment by the outgoing Bush administration -- a legacy of war, debt and scandal that would have defeated any of the other aspirants for the nomination. But because McCain could not create a coherent philosophy or vision of his own, he allowed Obama and the Democrats to convince voters of a falsehood: that electing McCain would in effect reward Bush with a third term.

A similar ambivalence clouded his relationship with the Republican Party. Neither rebel nor defender of the party's doctrines, he won its nomination because of smart tactics and lucky circumstances in three primaries -- New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida -- without ever establishing himself as its legitimate spokesman.

His vice presidential choice, his best opportunity to put his stamp on the future, was made, typically, more on instinct than careful appraisal. McCain saw Sarah Palin as reinforcing his own reformist credentials. The convention embraced her, not as a reformer but as the embodiment of beliefs precious to the religious right. And the mass of voters questioned her credentials for national leadership.

The campaign has been costly in terms of McCain's reputation. He has been condemned for small-minded partisanship, not praised for his generous and important suggestion that the major-party candidates stump the country together, conducting weekly joint town hall meetings -- an innovation Obama turned down.

The frustration for McCain and his closest associates is their belief that he is ready to practice the kind of post-partisan politics the country wants -- and which they believe Obama only talks about.

Should McCain win the election, it will demonstrate even more vividly than the earlier episodes in his life the survival instincts and capacity for overcoming the odds of this remarkably engaging man. And the country will have to hope this campaign has honed his leadership skills.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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