How To Be Big John

Five challenges for front-runner McCain.

John McCain. Click image to expand.
John McCain

In 2000, John McCain’s top advisers could fit in the back cabin of the Straight Talk Express. They often did. For his 2008 presidential race, there will be enough of them that they’ll need their own bus, or maybe two. McCain’s 2000 campaign Web site was colorful and displayed photos from his flyboy days; now it’s black and white, sober and presidential.           

These changes are just some of the small ones that come with being at the top of the list of men hoping to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. McCain may not top every early poll, but he is the front-runner. No other candidate has his organization, experience, fan base, and staff talent. To cement his standing, he delivered two speeches after Election Day to conservative organizations GOPAC and the Federalist Society. Why is he hustling so hard? Because he will be far more closely scrutinized and tested than he was last time. Here are five reasons he’ll maybe wish he could go back to being an insurgent: 

1. Managing the Iraq decline.

McCain has better military and national security credentials than any of his likely opponents in either party. As ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, he’ll have a chance to demonstrate his experience in every news cycle if he wants to. That’s not all good. So far, McCain has been able both to support the war and criticize its execution. He’s been spared the public disapproval that has hurt President Bush. But as voters and the press start to look at him as a president-in-waiting, will they start to penalize him for the failed Iraq policies? His political salvation may be his repeated call for more troops. However unpopular that position, McCain has advocated it for so long he can claim consistency, as well as validation in recent remarks by field commanders admitting that more troops were needed. Now that a small troop increase seems a possibility, McCain is likely to argue that it’s too little too late, which means that his position won’t be undermined if the bump doesn’t help in Iraq.

2.YouTube is watching.

In 2000, John McCain had a YouTube moment before the video network existed. On a bus rolling through California in March 2000, he called televangelist Pat Robertson “evil.” For the next several days, he both distanced himself from those remarks and embraced them, launching a failed attack on the agents of intolerance in the Republican Party. The mixed message was a disaster that helped end his campaign.

Now McCain will have to run in the real YouTube era, in which he won’t be able play a round of craps without being photographed. Fortunately for him, he gets a lot of leeway—anything short of criminal activity will rightly be seen by voters and the press corps as more signs of his storied authenticity.

But he does have one authentic characteristic that won’t play well on the continuous feedback loop: anger. The problem for McCain is not the anger itself—the stories of Bill Clinton’s rage are far more legendary and numerous—but the perception pushed, over the years, by his opponents, including George Bush in 2000, that McCain doesn’t have the cool head needed for the job. Though he’s been under considerable strain in his public career, McCain has never had a real moment of purple rage in front of the cameras (a brusque word to a reporter at the end of the 2000 campaign doesn’t count). If caught on camera, his straightest talk might not play well given the whispering campaign. That means that when opponents bait him, he’ll mostly have to smile, particularly when some crank confronts him in a parking lot at midnight in Decorah, Iowa, with a video camera. What’s so tricky about this, of course, is that maintaining such a constant act of sustained civility is enough to drive even the most docile politician into batty fits of rage.

3. More in sorrow than in anger.

When an adviser to Hillary Clinton made a crack about McCain’s behavior during his time as a POW, the senator’s advisers knew what to do. They took showy umbrage and Sen. Clinton apologized immediately. It was a political boon. Fights with Hillary help when you’re trying to court conservatives: They ratify your front-runner position, and plus, conservatives think she’s just awful. A fight that reminds everyone you’re a tough former POW is as good as it gets. But most of the time, McCain’s campaign needs to ignore its opponents. If McCain wants to look presidential, he has to stay above the fray, busying himself with affairs of the country or preparing to meet some foreign dignitary. To respond to every dart makes a candidate look thin-skinned and touchy, and elevates the attacker to parallel status. (Which is not to say that any candidate should make John Kerry’s mistake of failing to battle against attacks that undermine his or her entire candidacy.) Mitt Romney has now called McCain “disingenuous” for saying that states should decide the gay-marriage question and not the courts. It’s a risky gambit for the Massachusetts governor, whose position on abortion has evolved over the years, but one the McCain camp should probably ignore. There will be time for squabbling later at the Iowa debates.

4. Do your homework.

In 2000, the McCain campaign approached matters of policy in two ways. The first was to find a way to tie any issue to the corrupting influence of money in the political system, the senator’s signature crusade. If reporters wanted a more substantive answer about health care or education policy, they were directed to call John Raidt, McCain’s one-man policy shop. When the campaign survived longer than McCain staffers had imagined or prepared for, it seemed as if McCain’s policy papers had been photocopied from the back of the envelopes on which they’d been scratched that morning.

Now McCain must have a detailed policy position for everything. So, his campaign is building a serious, front-runner’s policy shop that will produce lots of laminated booklets with complicated-looking charts. Former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick will run the shop, and it will house big names like former Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who will give economic advice. The McCain team recently also hired Brett O’Donnell, the winning debate-team coach from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, to help with debates and communication.

5.Culture club.

There is a tight little band of aides at the center of the McCain operation and they will have to get used to ceding control over some of the operation (after they teach the candidate to do the same). Every campaign has this problem when it gets big. The work often requires anticipating the needs of the candidate and the veterans think they’re the only ones who can do that. Newcomers have their own hangups. They have to relax and not mope that they’re being shut out. They can mistakenly convince themselves that their beloved policy suggestion was ignored for turf reasons rather than because it was unworkable. Such aides complain to reporters, who happily write stories of praetorian guards and disarray.

Big campaigns also have to put up with fund-raisers and party bosses who have an endless supply of bad ideas, but of course can’t be dismissed immediately. McCain’s entertaining streak is also a liability in that staffers will fight for face time with him. And then there’s the yen to re-create the past glory of the 2000 campaign.

In the end, if the McCain campaign can meet all these challenges, it will be because of that trial by fire. The staff is tested and emotionally the wiser for it. In 2000, they would have driven the bus straight to Massachusetts to attack Romney on his front lawn for his recent disingenuity charge. This time, they haven’t said a word.