Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Phoenix: John McCain is Back

From Time: John McCain Rising

In war and in politics, John McCain has endured more than his share of near death experiences. He's been shot out of the sky and held captive, hung from ropes by his two broken arms and beaten senseless. This is his second run for President; he lost before, has nearly lost again and has been all but disowned by his party. So on the night of South Carolina's Republican primary, when the victory he needed to keep his campaign alive seemed as if it might be slipping away once again, McCain stood silent amid the chaos of his crowded hotel suite, his eyes fixed on the television screen.

The normally loquacious Senator, who is rarely silent and hates to miss a punch line, was tuning the rest of the room out. Rumors that the primary was about to be called for McCain had fizzled, supplanted by whispers that Mike Huckabee had taken a slim lead in the ballot count. For a moment, it all seemed as though it were going to fall down again. But the announcement came: "McCain wins South Carolina!" The room erupted in cheers; McCain's wife Cindy dissolved into tears; and the candidate's pale, scarred, 71-year-old face spread into a triumphant grin.

"Whether it was because of what happened eight years ago in South Carolina or because his campaign was declared dead last July, I don't know," says Mark Salter, McCain's adviser, speechwriter and alter ego. "But he was as happy as I've ever seen him." The old warrior in McCain has learned to savor every battle won because he knows it could be the last. McCain has traveled a long road to get where he is now, positioned as the ever-so-slight front runner for the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Last summer his once formidable campaign all but collapsed in debt and acrimony, with even his closest friends and advisers questioning whether he should bother marching on.

Now having won two important early contests (New Hampshire came first), McCain finds himself burdened with the front-runner label for the second time in a month, the third time in the past year and the fourth time since the 2000 primaries, when he challenged, briefly triumphed over and then was crushed in South Carolina by George W. Bush. Up to this point in McCain's career as a presidential candidate, becoming the man to beat has meant, inexorably, that he was about to be beaten. Whether that history repeats itself may depend on Florida, where the GOP primary is a closed affair. That means no independents or crossover Democrats, the voters who secured McCain's victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, are permitted to cast ballots. If McCain does manage to win in such a pure party contest, it could be enough to persuade Republicans, desperate for clarity in this wild election cycle, to rally around him.

"Florida is turning out to be the decisive state for the Republican Party," says Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 campaign. "Whoever comes out on top is going to have a tremendous amount of momentum." Maybe. But John McCain has been in presidential politics long enough to know that there is always the McCain exception to every rule. After he decisively beat former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in neighboring New Hampshire, McCain's low-budget campaign expected a windfall of fresh donations to help propel it forward. But the haul was disappointing; donors still weren't ready to buy in to a candidate they view as too much of a risk. The towering obstacle between McCain and victory is not so much his rivals for the nomination but the suspicion long held by many Republicans, especially rock-ribbed conservatives, that the Senator and former war hero is too much the maverick on issues that matter deeply to them to be trusted to occupy the White House.


Conservative fears about McCain are often irrational: through a 25-year career in Congress, first in the House and then in the Senate, McCain has proved himself consistently pro-life on abortion and a hawk on defense, a scourge of wasteful government spending and a generally reliable vote in favor of tax cuts. Yet at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of party power brokers, McCain was booed. Conservative élites are the ones most likely to break out into hives at the mention of McCain's name. Former Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay has declared that he would not vote for McCain in the general election, even if Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee. Railing against McCain and Huckabee, both of whom he views as anathema to conservatives, talk-radio kingpin Rush Limbaugh recently warned his 13.5 million listeners, "If either of these two guys gets the nomination, it's going to destroy the Republican Party." A few days later, Limbaugh was so outraged by the possibility that Republicans might support McCain that he bellowed, "If you Republicans don't mind McCain's positions, then what is it about Hillary's positions you dislike? They're the same!"

The truth is that McCain and Clinton remain far apart on the political spectrum. But it is also true that conservatives have a lengthy bill of complaint against McCain. In the past decade he has joined with Democrats on a series of crusades in Congress — with Russ Feingold on campaign-finance reform and Ted Kennedy on immigration reform — that a majority of Republicans have opposed. He voted against President Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and '03, each time citing the need for fiscal restraint. And during his 2000 campaign, he labeled Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance." He has seemed to delight in doing battle with members of his own party and creed. "John's mistake is that he makes it personal," says a close friend in Washington. "When he's convinced he's doing the right thing, he has a hard time staying above the fray." All the while — and this may be what galls conservatives most — McCain has been hailed by liberals and lionized in the mainstream news media for being a rebel. This maverick reputation, so prized for its general-election appeal, makes it difficult for McCain to pass the primary threshold. As was the case in 2000, McCain in 2008 has yet to win even a plurality of Republican votes in a presidential primary outside his home state of Arizona and the generally liberal Northeast. This frustrates McCain, something I saw over dinner with him in Washington in May 2002, when McCain told me he was probably through with running for President. He had tried it two years before and almost pulled off a historic upset against Bush. But, he said, "you can't bottle lightning." Twice during dinner, patrons went over to shake McCain's hand and urge him to run again — against Bush in 2004 — as an independent or Democrat. The Senator was gracious and noncommittal. But after the second time, he gave me an exaggerated roll of his eyes and shook his head. "I'm a Republican, for chrissakes!"


But conservative and independent voters have the same question about McCain: What kind of Republican is he? In 2000, when the U.S. was at peace and the economy was luxuriating in the frothy end days of the first Internet boom, McCain's first campaign was about character and biography much more than issues. McCain was the authentic hero, the fighter pilot who had been shot down over Hanoi and spent more than five years as a prisoner of war. He was the reformer and the straight talker, the rare politician who — perhaps because of his experience as a POW — wasn't going to compromise his principles or hold his tongue to please his party. He was also, at his core, still the rowdy, runty, red-tempered plebe who finished near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy despite an IQ of 133. McCain became a symbol in 2000 of courage and candor. Few took close looks at his policy positions. It was almost enough to get him the Republican nomination.

This time is different. Character and authenticity still matter, but McCain's reputation as an expert on defense and foreign affairs carries far greater weight in the post-9/11 world than it did eight years ago. On Iraq, McCain supported the invasion and still does. But he was an early critic of the way the Bush Administration was prosecuting the war and called for a change in strategy that would include a surge in U.S. troops to gain control of Baghdad. At the time, advocating an increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq rather than a reduction was unpopular even within the GOP. But McCain stood by Bush when the policy was implemented. For all his expertise, McCain tends to prefer blunt declarations about Iraq — "the surge is working." He says U.S. troops should remain in Iraq for 100 years if necessary. What he doesn't often discuss are the trade-offs required to sustain an unending commitment to a war that drains more than $9 billion from the U.S. Treasury every month. Instead, he is dismissive of those who doubt that he's right. "It's almost a ludicrous argument — 'How long are we going to stay?'" McCain insisted to me between campaign stops in Florida's panhandle. "It's like asking 'How long are we going to stay in Japan?' Well, we've been there since World War II." The success of the troop surge has given McCain points for prescience and reaffirmed his political courage.

Yet there's a downside too. As violence in Iraq has ebbed, economic anxiety has rocketed to the top of voters' concerns. This shift exposes one of McCain's weaknesses. He is a conviction politician, passionate about the issues that animate him, dismissive of and uninterested in those that don't. Iraq, foreign policy, the military and treatment of veterans — these topics get him excited. In the domestic realm, he's fire and energy when he rails against pork-barrel spending. But mention other issues — taxes, health care, education policy — and he briefly resorts to talking points before changing the subject. "Obviously, the economy is a very, very vital issue," he told me. "There's no doubt about that, O.K.? But the issue that's going to be with us after the economy recovers is the challenge of radical Islamic extremism, of which Iraq is the central battleground."


What's both refreshing and vaguely masochistic about McCain is that even when he knows it's in his short-term political interest to dodge a question or adjust his message, he often just won't — or can't — do it. If McCain becomes the nominee and wins the White House, he will be 72 when he takes office, the oldest person ever to ascend to the presidency. He has suffered serious skin cancers over the years, not to mention brutal physical torture as a prisoner of war. His age and health, therefore, are of legitimate concern to voters. But McCain doesn't downplay his liabilities; he highlights them. "I'm older than dirt, with more scars than Frankenstein," he likes to joke. McCain has what author and friend Michael Lewis once described as "a love of actual risk" that is "freakish" in a politician.

Before the Michigan primary, he told voters in the economically ravaged state that lost auto-industry jobs "aren't coming back," a dose of undiluted straight talk that probably cemented his loss there to Romney. And no sooner had he arrived in Florida than he declared himself opposed to a costly national catastrophic-insurance bill that is widely backed by Sunshine State voters and supported by Florida's popular Republican governor, Charlie Crist, whose endorsement McCain covets. Still, McCain's appeal tends to transcend his positions on the issues — when it doesn't contradict them entirely. He is the candidate most associated with supporting the President's war in Iraq, yet he is the hands-down choice so far of antiwar and anti-Bush voters in his party's primaries. He has accrued a far more conservative record in political office than Rudy Giuliani, Romney or, in many cases, Mike Huckabee, but he is, as he was in 2000, the favorite of independents and Democrats who choose to vote in GOP primaries. That's the main reason that skeptical Republicans may fall in line behind McCain, even if they don't fall for him.

This is shaping up to be a dismal election year for the GOP; regaining control of the House or Senate is beyond reach, and the incumbent Republican President has approval ratings that top out in the 30s. Home foreclosures are rampant, joblessness is up, and the markets are plunging. The Iraq war, while quieter, remains deeply unpopular. In other words, conditions could scarcely be worse for a Republican trying to win the White House. And yet every poll suggests that McCain — because of his appeal beyond his party — could actually win. "McCain has his flaws," says Ken Duberstein, a former chief of staff to Ronald Reagan, "but everyone is starting to recognize that he's the most electable Republican out there." As if to dare Republican pooh-bahs to keep dragging their feet, McCain is holding a top-dollar fund raiser at a Washington steak house favored by lobbyists, on Jan. 28, the day before the Florida primary. The message: Get on board now, before McCain's nomination is a fait accompli.

If McCain does get the nod of his party, he has promised, he will wage a civil campaign. And he says he's confident that whoever wins the Democratic nomination will play by the same above-the-belt rules. Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are his colleagues, after all, and McCain has worked with each of them in the Senate. He once even bonded with Clinton over late-night vodka shots in Estonia on a congressional trip. "I am confident we'd have a respectful debate with any of the three," McCain says. "Why not? I've worked with them all. They're all patriots." That's the kind of talk that strikes terror in the hearts of many Republicans and makes them worry that McCain might lack the fire to attack his Democratic rival or, if he won the White House, might abandon the bedrock values of the GOP in his zeal to make deals with Democrats. If McCain loses Florida, and the nomination, it will be because Republicans can't overcome their doubts about him — and because McCain isn't willing to make it easy for them.

By James Carney

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