He Must Be Mad

Will you like McCain when he’s not angry?

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Being a Republican presidential front-runner requires endurance and patience, so John McCain should be perfect. His tour in the Navy and career in the Senate have been marked by long, hard slogs. He pushed to pass campaign-finance reform for years before it was enacted. “Steady strain,” he repeats during protracted legislative fights, a mantra from his five and a half years as a POW, when he persevered over setbacks more daunting than any primary or filibuster.

But being a front-runner requires more of an iron ass than an iron will. You have to sit through Lincoln Day dinners listening to party functionaries; sit through lectures from powerful but verbose fund-raisers who have strategy ideas; and endure pundits and political elites who evaluate your political motives, status, and future six times a day. The chore of being a front-runner requires the patience of the waiting room, not the ready room.

That’s a political problem for McCain. He is patient when he is engaged in a crusade against an enemy like special interests or George W. Bush. He is not patient when he has to perform the rote obligations of political discipline. The signs of this strain can be seen in his decision to speak at Liberty University, the evangelical private institution in Lynchburg, Va., founded by Jerry Falwell.

Most commentators have jumped on the hypocrisy of the trip. McCain once labeled Falwell an “agent of intolerance,” but Falwell paid a visit to the senator, and they talked though their issues. McCain now says he is convinced that the reverend who blamed gays, feminists, and pro-choice advocates for the 9/11 attacks is not intolerant. “I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen,’ ” said Falwell in September 2001. Perhaps we should be asking McCain where he stands on the question of whether Falwell is just plain loony.

It’s not likely that McCain’s playbook has a bullet point labeled “Falwell fawn.” Yes, McCain has to convince enough conservatives he’s one of them, but McCain’s advisers are not dumb. They know that Falwell is not a real leader of the social conservative base—it has more potent figures, and a huge chunk of that base bristles at candidates who court those who claim to speak for them. Plus, those who do follow Falwell wouldn’t trust McCain even if he let the reverend baptize him in the James River.

But if this wasn’t a premeditated outreach, it was the kind of petit pander a front-runner has to engage in. At this stage of the race, McCain can’t shun a guy who can cause him trouble. It’s better to have Falwell in the tent mumbling his accusations against the heathen than actively working against McCain outside the tent. So, when Falwell ended their meeting in McCain’s office by asking the senator to speak in Lynchburg, he said yes.

The whole business clearly makes McCain uncomfortable. He prefers being the maverick, not the guy who has to explain the compromises of getting elected. He was prickly when Tim Russert asked about Falwell, saying, “I think that Jerry Falwell can explain his views on this program when you have him on.” He would prefer to be crusading against Falwell or some Falwell-like object.

So, why not just let McCain be McCain? Why can’t he go back to being the guy who gave that rousing speech in which he called out Falwell and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson? That truth-telling is what makes him so authentic and attractive. The answer is not just that McCain has to coddle party insiders now that he’s the front-runner. The McCain of the 2000 race was not a perfect model, either. A campaign run on crusades becomes addicted to them and overreaches. The very speech in which McCain highlighted Falwell’s intolerance was perhaps the most acute example of this.

The idea for the speech came after McCain’s victories in the Arizona and Michigan primaries. Buzzed on the big wins, but also jonesing for the next hill to conquer, he and his aides decided to take on the GOP’s “shady theocrats,” as adviser Mike Murphy called them at the time. They tore up the campaign schedule and flew off to Virginia Beach, Va., home of the Christian Coalition. They were there to shove it in Pat Robertson’s kazoo. “It’s confrontational politics that have worked for us,” campaign manager Rick Davis told me at the time, “and we had to put a little drama into the campaign. We need to get people excited. If they don’t get excited, they don’t come out. And if they don’t come out, we lose.”

But McCain was motivated by personal revenge as much as by a desire to tell the truth. Pat Robertson and his former right-hand man Ralph Reed had actively and effectively contributed to the scorched-earth campaign against McCain in South Carolina. This was the religious right’s second act in a campaign that had started with their opposition to his campaign-finance-reform legislation. McCain was paying them back. Though Falwell was not involved in the attacks, McCain’s speechwriters threw him in, too, as a way to broaden the critique.

The speech was great theater; the moment clearly energized McCain and reporters and his enemies. Campaign aides now admit that even their potential base of moderates and independents thought the senator looked too focused on what had happened to him and not on any larger message. He looked a little overheated and self-absorbed. Throwing a roundhouse may have been the only thing McCain could have done at the time, but it didn’t work.

Campaigns are about building coalitions, and for John McCain the question is: Will he pick up enough conservatives to win the primaries without alienating the independents and moderates he energized in 2000? But perhaps the most challenging balancing act for McCain will be the psychological one—building a coalition between Front-Runner McCain and Crusading McCain.