Without a win in New York, California, or even reform-lovin’ Maine, John McCain is now effectively out of the race for the GOP nomination. I’ll admit to being disappointed. Not because I think McCain necessarily would have made a good president–I’ve always harbored grave doubts on that score–but because he was an original, imaginative, and at times inspiring candidate. McCain challenged all that is hidebound, joyless, and mind-numbing in American campaigns. He threw out the political consultant’s playbook and proved, despite his failure, that someone with guts can run for president without it.
The first shibboleth McCain took on is the rule that says that a candidate must stay relentlessly “on message.” Unlike George W. Bush, McCain knew why he was running: He wanted to clean up the political system and restore honor to the White House. And because he knew what his campaign was about, McCain didn’t worry that voters wouldn’t understand if he didn’t repeat himself like a tape recording every day. Where Bush as a candidate is utterly rote and predictable, McCain was creative and spontaneous: He actually thought while he was talking. McCain was occasionally inconsistent and sometimes foolhardy, but never boring. Simply by being his freewheeling self on the campaign trail, he showed that a candidate doesn’t have to be a robot.
Another bit of received political wisdom treats changes of mind on the part of a candidate as invitations to catastrophe. McCain showed that it is possible to have views that evolve in the course of a campaign without being an opportunistic flip-flopper. That’s because in his case, there wasn’t much correlation between the adjustments in his views and political expediency. The wider opening for him was on Bush’s right, but he chose to run to Bush’s left. On specific issues, McCain’s adjustments seem equally nonpolitical. On abortion, where it would have repaid him to remain a doctrinaire pro-lifer through the primaries, McCain hinted at his doubts. On ethanol, where he might have gained by reversing his position as Bill Bradley did, McCain held firm. But what was most interesting about McCain on the stump was the way the experience of campaigning actually seemed to affect his outlook. His unexpected talk about income inequality and his surprising opposition to big tax cuts were not calculated moves. They were reactions to what he saw and heard traversing the country as a candidate.
Lastly, there is a widespread belief that a campaign has to handle the press carefully. The typical politician doles out access sparingly because he fears gaffes, the exacerbation of his mistakes, and invasions of his privacy. McCain ignored all this folklore and let the sun shine in. Again, he didn’t do this for tactical reasons. The McCain you got on the “Straight Talk Express” was much the same character you saw answering questions in New Hampshire town meetings. His native candor ruined a lot of journalists by giving us a glimpse of a better world, one without constant spin. As a reporter, you could always ask McCain your question, and if you weren’t guaranteed a direct and truthful answer, you had 10 times as much chance of getting one as you would from any other candidate. A politician’s style also tends to trickle down. Most of McCain’s staff members are, like him, funny, candid, and a somewhat subversive. Wondering about the campaign’s lack of preparation for success a while back, I asked John Weaver, McCain’s political director, what he planned to do in the event his candidate won the South Carolina primary. “Get drunk,” was his succinct reply.
You could argue that McCain’s loss proves that the consultant’s manual is right, but I’d make the opposite case. McCain lost, but he exceeded everyone’s expectations, including his own–he was clearly stunned to be the last other man left standing alongside Bush. Given what he was up against in terms of money, organization, and endorsements, the correct question might be not why McCain lost, but how he nearly won. A more disciplined candidate who didn’t make McCain’s mistakes might have done better. But then, that candidate wouldn’t have been John McCain and so might have done worse.
Could McCain have won the GOP nomination by doing things differently in the last few weeks? We’ll never know, but I would argue that McCain’s biggest liability after the New Hampshire primary was precisely his ambivalence about conventional campaign tactics. McCain was torn between his instincts as a fighter and his instincts as a political reformer. One side of him wanted to make Bush rue the day he unfairly attacked John McCain. The other side wanted to demonstrate that negative campaigning is sleazy and unnecessary. So McCain went both ways at once and denied himself the tactical benefits of fighting dirty as well as the moral advantages of fighting clean. He might have avoided the conflict by running “anti-negative” ads about Bush’s attacks on him. But when McCain tried a couple of these in South Carolina (the “like Clinton” spots), they backfired, and soured him on all but the most upbeat advertising. At the same time, he persisted with even harder-to-defend negative phone calls.
McCain also failed to think through the implications of attacking the religious right in his Virginia Beach speech. While this “Sister Souljah” maneuver might have been brilliant once McCain had secured his party’s nomination, it was a foolhardy gambit in a hotly contested Republican primary. A more conventional, more single-minded candidate would have focused exclusively on the point that he would be a stronger candidate in November against Al Gore. But then, a more conventional and single-minded candidate would be Al Gore.
What does the McCain campaign leave behind as its legacy? Not a new way of running for president, because there’s no reason to think that McCain’s improvisational style would work for someone else. Essayed by an Al Gore or a George W. Bush, McCain’s spontaneity and candor would seem awkward and inauthentic. And McCain’s legacy isn’t a transformed Republican Party, at least not any time soon. McCain didn’t convince anyone in the GOP that the party would fly better with its right wing clipped. Indeed, the immediate effect of his Virginia Beach speech seems to have been to reinforce the hold of the religious right over the Republican presidential nominating process.
What McCain leaves behind, then, is a fractured party, a damaged Republican nominee apparent, and a large, unserved constituency at the heart of the American electorate. His campaign revealed a huge national appetite for political reform and personal integrity. Once McCain is gone, Bush and Gore will vie for the truth-starved, disenchanted voters he left behind. The one who wins them will be the next president.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.