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McCain’s Base Problem Continues

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/mccain-townhall.jpgSen. John McCain (Flickr, twinkletoez)

In late January, just days before her son would win the Florida Republican primary, 96-year-old Roberta McCain—who in another era might have been called a real broad, a pistol — was asked by a C-SPAN interviewer how much support her 71-year-old boy had among “the base of the Republican Party.”

“I don’t think he has any,” said Mother McCain. “I don’t know what the base of the Repub–maybe I don’t know enough about it, but I’ve not seen any help whatsoever.”

Pressed about whether, given that, he could take the nomination, the elder McCain snapped: “Yes, I think holding their nose, they’re going to have to take him.”


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Since then Sen. John McCain has gone through a Russell Crowe in “Gladiator”-like journey: from front-runner, to broke-and-destitute has-been, to the man who would win the GOP presidential nomination. Yet little has changed for the Arizona senator when it comes to the base — the internal light at the center of the modern Republican Party, whose foundations were laid in the successful presidential runs of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 and 1972, and fully-realized with the triumph of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

In it’s design, the GOP base is a three-legged chair, wobbly at moments, but effective if put together by the right assembler. One leg consists of social conservatives — those members of the evangelical movement and Moral Majority, who seek to eliminate abortion and restore Christian values to the environs of the public school system and to government at-large. Then there’s the fiscal/small government types, which includes Wall Street, people who spend their off hours debating the tax code at The Palm, with expense accounts … of course. The final leg are defense hawks — the folks who pushed for a build-up of military strength as a way to outspend the Soviets, who advocated the war in Iraq and consistently push for increased defense spending during dinner parties in McClean.

Banded together, with a leader they believe in, these three are like the Avengers under Captain America, seemingly able and ready to defeat any opposing candidate. But McCain–his heroism in the Vietnam War not withstanding — is not Captain America, much less Ronald Reagan.

Indeed, you could say that McCain has spent his career alienating the base. Running against George W. Bush in 2000, McCain accused his rival of pandering to leaders of the religious right, whom he called “agents of intolerance.” Specifically, he said Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell — fixtures in the religious intellectual movement that surrounded Reagan — were “corrupting influences on religion and politics.” All three parts of the GOP base bristled at McCain’s biggest achievement, campaign finance reform — which they saw as an instrument of limiting their influence in the corridors of power.

McCain’s litany of sins against the party goes further. Last year, his support of immigration reform, that — no matter the couched language — included a form of amnesty, didn’t win him any favor with social conservatives opposed to the influx of millions of illegal immigrants. His initial opposition to Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 still irks those who wish to shrink the size of the federal government.

While Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and member of the NRA board of directors, for one, is enthused by McCain reaching out to conservatives–by supporting sizable tax cuts and attending the National Rifle Assn. national convention — the perception remains that McCain is still a man unable to win over the party base. Yes, he is the likely nominee and his military credentials give him street cred with the national security folks. But he is still struggling to find words that will earn him the support of the base’s other two groups who reside on two streets–Wall and Main.

To understand this, all you have to do is spend a little time talking to Richard Viguerie–the 74-year-old conservative stalwart who’s deeply proud of his affiliation with Barry M. Goldwater and Reagan and the Contract with America. He is a man who can’t stomach what Mrs. McCain’s boy is serving.

“It’s a rare person who considers themselves a conservative and is enthusiastic about McCain,” said Viguerie. “There’s just a disconnect. He’s had three months to try and bridge that gap and he’s done nothing. He’s made a couple of speeches, but people look at him and don’t see conservatives around him. He’s got a brand, and that brand is the maverick who says, ‘I am not partisan and I reach out to Kennedy, to Feingold, to Joe Lieberman, to the other side.’”

Ed Rollins, campaign director for Reagan’s thumping of Walter Mondale in 1984 and, more recently, the campaign chairman for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential bid, agrees with Viguerie. “He still has to prove himself to the conservative base,” Rollins said, “He hasn’t reached out to them as much as I would do. They’re still not sure whether he’s one of them.”

Indeed, you can’t blame any one-time foot soldier of the Reagan Revolution, who believes in the Moral Majority or sees deregulation as the cure to society’s ills, if they wake up each morning, see the word “nominee” and “McCain” pushed together on television and scream “What happened?” How did a candidate, who, only months before, stood on the opposite side to the populist tide against illegal immigration, who championed campaign finance reform, win the GOP nomination?

What happened, as Rollins puts it, was a Republican primary contest that resembled a NASCAR race — where people moved ahead, were taken back and moved ahead again. The overflowing coffers of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney couldn’t win him Iowa or New Hampshire. Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani’s apparent lack of interest cost both men deeply, as did the lack of a national network for family-values friendly Huckabee. McCain was simply the guy who was left, the man whom Republican voters simply thought could win.

“What it says is there was not one candidate who could command the base,” Rollins says.

National Review editor Rich Lowry sees this as well. “I don’t want to take too much away from McCain,” said Lowry, “but everything broke exactly the right way.”

Moreover, as much as the Republican candidates — including the virtual nominee — evoked Reagan, his “Morning in America” ended a long time ago. Even for a man like Lowry, a man literally following in the tradition of William F. Buckley Jr., the never-ending evocation of the Gipper was, well, a bit much.

“None of them had new ideas,” Lowry lamented. “Reagan didn’t talk about Taft all the time, or being Reagan. On one hand, it’s great he’s so honored, but at times risks becoming a backward-looking obsession.”

While Lowry says conservatives are starting to to “come home,” to support McCain, the fact remains that the GOP’s almost nominee must run against his own past. To many, he’s still that cranky independent — no matter how much he says he admires Reagan, or supports Bush’s efforts with the war and the economy.

The problem is that this has served him well outside the party. But how does McCain earn the trust of the base, while staying the maverick, the man willing to come to compromise with Ted Kennedy?

He could do it, as his would-be predecessor did. After all, Bush rallied the GOP base in 2000 and 2004 at the cost of other voters. The result were razor-thin victories.

“I think anything he does to win the love of the conservatives would be very costly for him in the general election,” said Bill Schneider, the CNN senior political analyst. “He has a lot of appeal to the center, to the moderates, to some Democrats. He cannot win the election the way Bush won in 2004. He faces the same dilemma most candidates face, getting enough support from them while reaching out to the center.”

Maybe McCain can find guidance from the history books. Franklin D. Roosevelt won in 1932 largely because he wasn’t a Republican president who, on his watch, had seen the complete erosion of the U.S. economy. Like Roosevelt, McCain has the distinct advantage not of being who he is — but who he is not.

“The best thing he could do is remind people what their alternative is,” said FDR biographer David Kennedy, a history professor at Stanford. “He’s a man of personal honor, but I tend to think this campaign will get quite negative. What he can say is, ‘I’m not Barack Obama. My pastor’s not crazy.’”

But that may not be enough for a win. “Sooner or later,” said Rollins, “he’ll have to make efforts to have the base work hard for him. There’s not enough independents out there that can help you win if you lose 10 to 15 percent of your base.”

As far as Viguerie is concerned, the latter is a strong possibility. Because those who consider themselves the true believers just don’t like him. “McCain can go out there and try and get people who don’t like the Republican Party to vote for him,” he said. “Fine, let him try. We are not a wing of the party. WE ARE THE PARTY.”

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