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McCain’s True Test

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/mccain_mic.jpgSen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) (WDCpix)

ASPEN, Colo.–”The climate is an historically awful one for Republicans,” Nicolle Wallace said. “It’s just terrible.”

Wallace, the communications director for President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, who later filled that role at the White House, was speaking about the environment that her current candidate, Sen. John McCain, now faces. It was early in the evening of Aug. 13, and Wallace was sitting outside a ballroom in Birmingham, Mich., where McCain had just given a press conference before national and local reporters. He seemed, as he had been since the beginning of this week, energized. The presumed Republican nominee had spent the bulk of the conference talking about Russian aggression in Georgia, and he seemed happy he could show off his national-security and foreign-affairs cred. But with that moment over, Wallace was looking to the campaign battle to come.

“It’s a huge challenge,” said Wallace, who left her perch as a political analyst for the CBS Evening News in May, to return to the supreme turbulence of political life. “A huge challenge.”


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

While Wallace was careful with her wording, the fact of the matter is that McCain hasn’t actually addressed his real problem. He’s talked about the difficult issues at hand — the cost of energy and the need for nuclear power and electric cars; how to deal with Iraq since the surge “worked;” the increasing threat Russia poses to the free nations of the world. What he hasn’t spoken about is the true test he must overcome — his own party.

This is not Ronald Reagan’s GOP, or even the party that elected Bush twice. Now, with Bush’s approval ratings below 30 percent, the Republican Party looks almost toxic for many people; for others it seems like something lying in smoldering rubble, resembling Berlin or what was left of it after the Allies’ victory in 1945.

But like that dark and uncertain time, McCain is presented with an enormous opportunity. He is a man, perhaps the only man, that can help resuscitate and rebuild the brand of the Republican Party. Because despite moves he’s made to the right in the past years — including embracing the late Jerry Falwell, whom he once called one of the “agents of intolerance — McCain remains, for many Americans, the candidate who ran against Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries. Independent. Fearless. The Maverick. That is the McCain people remember. And that is the GOP’s great hope.

It’s because of this resonance that McCain stands as someone who might be able to remake the Republican Party in his own image–at least for this election. Remember that Bill Clinton, in 1992, ran against a weakened, left-wing Democratic Party brand when he served up his centrist, and ultimately winning, platform. Eight years later Bush did the same thing when he spoke of a new compassionate conservatism that seemed a welcome contrast to Newt Gingrich’s 1994 revolution. Now might just be McCain’s turn.

“Changing the Republican Party between September and November will be increasingly difficult if not impossible,” said historian David Greenberg, author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.” “These things usually change because a president serves one terms or two. But I do think McCain’s actually put good distance between himself and Bush. There are a number of reasons why it’s tough to be in a better position than McCain. Others are going to suffer because of the party brand. With him it’s relatively less so.”

A presidential election is about one man, yes, but it has always presented each party with the chance to transform itself. As the presumed presidential candidate, McCain can take whatever control Bush still has over the party and make it his own. It is McCain, not Bush, who will be visiting manufacturing plants in Michigan, who’ll meet with voters. It is McCain, not Bush, who will be on the evening news each night, his policies dissected on cable news, his commercials beamed out across the country. As such, he becomes the de facto leader of a party that desperately want a new one, wants anyone else but the man currently occupying the Oval Office.

But McCain must do this with caution. He cannot completely repudiate Bush; nor can he give a great bear hug around the policies of the president. Indeed he has to move with pinpoint precision, picking his spots, keeping Bush at arms length but also in his immediate orbit. He cannot run entirely against the times, because people blame the times as the outcome of the policies of McCain’s own party.

“John McCain is John McCain,” said Terry Nelson, the Republican strategist who served as McCain’s campaign manager from December 2006 to July 2007. “He’s disagreed with the president on little things and he’s agreed with him on big things and vice-versa. He’s going to say what he believes. You don’t want to be a campaign of reaction. You want a campaign that looks to the future. People want to know what you’re going to do for them in the future, and not in the past.”

It is McCain’s future should he want it. Of course the performance of his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, the supposed biggest celebrity in the world, has a lot to do with the kind of success McCain can have in remaking the GOP in his mold.

But there are things McCain can do on his own. He can go on the offensive as he has — both through commercials and in rhetoric — and scale back his playbook to something voters can associate with. The McCain one sees now on the trail has a few key ideas which he repeats again and again and again until they’ve become part of his own mantra. More important, these ideas form a set of beliefs people can identify with — not only him, but potentially the party as well.

Wallace certainly seems to believe McCain is capable of doing this. “You can start out a year-and-a-half out,” Wallace said, “but when it comes down to the last 100 days, voters are looking for three ways you’re going to change their lives.” She was so absorbed by the subject that she barely noticed as reporters filed out from one ballroom behind her into another adjacent one where a fund-raiser was being held. “In Sen. McCain you have an energy policy that’ll relieve us from foreign oil,” she said, “a pro-growth plan that emphasizes cutting taxes and helping small businesses which are the economic turbine of this country. The other big choice is national security, which is as stark as any in the last three or four presidential cycles.

“We have to continue to drive the debate,” Wallace said. “Some of the challenges of running when you’re the party in power are pretty obvious. You’ve got someone who, for a variety of reasons — whose come down to the last months of his administration facing challenges. You never run against that. You just have to keep focused on the fact is the choice is between John McCain and Barack Obama.”

As McCain seeks to define himself as a candidate in this race, the chance for even greater definition seems his. For now McCain is de facto leader of the party still licking its wounds after the 2006 mid-term elections, when Democrats used Bush’s unpopularity to take control of both the House and Senate. Let’s face it, when Americans look to the Republican Party, they see one divided among different factions, unable to curb foreclosures and job loss and end the U.S. occupation in Iraq, and a president who seems disengaged.

But as the McCain camp can redefine the GOP they might have that chance to do more–to reshape how many independents in this country see the GOP for the next decade. If McCain is able to transplant his brand to what’s left of the Republican identity, he might win more than the White House. He will have created a new Republican Party, following his principles and vision, a party of his own.

“If elected, he will be party leader for a while — and will be in better position than anybody to re-craft the brand as the leader of the free world,” said Sara Taylor, a Republican strategist, who left her post as White House political director in 2007. “Certainly the best thing he can do for the brand is win.”

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