Frame Game

The McCain Majority

George W. Bush trounced John McCain by a margin of more than two to one among self-identified Republicans in Michigan yesterday—and lost the primary. How? Independents and Democrats flooded the contest. They outnumbered self-identified Republicans and voted overwhelmingly for McCain. Bush says these newcomers aren’t real or potential Republicans; McCain says they are. So the Bush-McCain race has come down to this: What does it mean to be a Republican?

Some political reporters haven’t thought about this question, others don’t understand it, and most of the rest don’t care. They’ve been trained to report who’s up and who’s down, not why it matters. So when Bush argued last night that “Republicans overwhelmingly supported my candidacy” in Michigan, reporters brushed it off as post-defeat spin. Yes, the media are covering McCain’s poor showing among self-identified Republicans, but only insofar as it affects the horse race. They don’t understand that the Bush-McCain war will determine not just which candidate represents the GOP, but what he’s representing.

The pattern of the primaries so far—Bush winning the Republican faithful, McCain winning independents and Democrats—raises one of life’s oldest and deepest questions: How far will you change who you are to get what you want? How many nose jobs, face lifts, and breast augmentations will you endure to attract a husband? How many colleagues will you step on or manipulate to win a promotion? How many cigarettes will you smoke and how many classes will you cut to fit in with the cool kids? At what point along the road to success does the person who is succeeding cease to be you?

McCain says he can restore the presidency to the GOP by attracting independents and Democrats. In his victory speech last night, he promised to “make our party bigger and change politics in this country for generations. Don’t fear this campaign, my fellow Republicans. Join it. … This is where you belong: the Republicans who practice the politics of addition over the politics of division. We are creating a new majority, my friends—a McCain majority.”

But the “politics of addition” isn’t that simple. Each time a political, social, or economic organization adds new and different members, it loses a bit of its old identity. When a family grows by birth or marriage, it changes. When America Online acquires Time Warner, it changes. When the United States welcomes immigrants who speak other languages, it changes. At what point is AOL no longer AOL? At what point is the United States no longer the United States? At what point is the GOP no longer the GOP?

These questions can’t simply be dismissed as narrow-minded. They require philosophical answers: What does it mean to be an Internet company, an American, or a Republican? McCain prefers debt reduction and long-term Medicare solvency to tax cuts. He assails tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. Lately he has spent most of his time in the Senate trying to ban unregulated political donations and to force tobacco companies to pay a huge fine that would oblige them to raise cigarette prices. How far do these crusades and policies bend the definition of the GOP? How many Republicans are prepared to change the party to accommodate McCain, and how many of his heresies are they willing to absorb?

If McCain wins the nomination and the presidency, he will change the GOP at least as dramatically as Bill Clinton changed the Democrats. Bush would define fiscal conservatism in terms of reducing the size of government. McCain would define it in terms of balancing the budget. Bush would emphasize tax cuts. McCain would emphasize tax “fairness.” When vacancies open on the Supreme Court, Bush would need to maintain his base among Christian conservatives. McCain would need to maintain his base among libertarian independents. And while Bush would confine the use of American power abroad to “American interests,” McCain would extend it to an ambitious agenda of “rogue-state rollback.”

Liberals don’t understand why McCain scares so many Republicans. Today’s New York Times, for example, chides Bush for “belittling” McCain’s “gift for inclusiveness.” Back in 1992, when Clinton was attracting supporters of the death penalty, the Times saw it as a betrayal of principle rather than a “gift for inclusiveness.” But that’s the difference between your principle and the other guy’s. Republicans have every right to shrink in mortal terror from the prospect of a McCain presidency. The question before them is not whether they will absorb the “McCain majority” but whether it will absorb them.