McCain Shakes Up G.O.P.’s Elites

What does a left-leaning columnist do when the only exciting primary race is on the Republican track? Look over there and pick a horse, of course.

It will probably come as no surprise to read praise of John McCain in this space, particularly after his daring rebuke of the religious right in Virginia on Feb. 28. The more conspiracy-minded conservatives may even surmise that a liberal’s endorsement of the Arizona Senator must involve some baroque scheme to undermine their movement. (There are even a few poor paranoids who apparently suspect that the former prisoner of war is actually a Manchurian candidate programmed by the Vietnamese Communists to take over the White House.)

In reality, however, the right wing of the Republican Party has been busily ruining itself for several years without the need of any help from liberals and Democrats. By rejecting Mr. McCain, they would foreclose what is surely their best opportunity to undo the damage already inflicted on the Grand Old Party by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson. The Arizona Senator, who quite accurately describes himself as a Reagan Republican, is pointing the way out of the cul-de-sac created by his party’s leadership.

If recent polls are to be believed, in fact, Mr. McCain would be the most formidable competitor to the Democratic nominee next November. More than a few Democrats who once worried about the financial juggernaut being constructed by George W. Bush are now fretting about the Texan’s premature collapse.

Speculation regarding who is “most electable” usually turns out to be ephemeral blather anyway. The list of candidates who were once promoted as electable-and who then failed to mount even a serious primary campaign-is simply too long for such arguments to be taken seriously. Trying to calculate those odds is like using a “system” to pick ponies. It can be fun, but it isn’t reliable. (Remember when Bill Bradley was the “most electable” Democrat-and when Bill Clinton was regarded as having virtually no chance of re-election in 1996?)

So there is no way of knowing which of the two leading Republicans stands a better chance of sitting in the Oval Office next Jan. 21. My own obvious preference would be neither. But patriotic considerations ought to trump any ideological or partisan preferences in choosing between Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush.

In terms of experience and intellectual capacity, Mr. Bush is clearly unready to shoulder the responsibilities of the Presidency. After one term as Governor of Texas he is less capable of overseeing the world’s single superpower than was the current Commander in Chief after more than a decade as Governor of Arkansas. It took a while for Mr. Clinton to learn the job, and he is considerably smarter and more diligent than Mr. Bush.

Although Mr. McCain’s hot temper may provoke concern, he is no lightweight who needs to hide behind his advisers. He is unlikely to embarrass the United States by mouthing phrases that he doesn’t understand. He didn’t run away from Slobodan Milosevic. And while he occasionally sounds jingoistic, he demonstrated independence from orthodox conservatism by advocating normalized relations with Vietnam.

Just as compelling as the challenger’s credentials is his determination to build a better Republican Party-which, whether in power or in opposition, would be in the best interest of the nation as a whole. His strategy and tactics leave little doubt about his intentions in that regard. By vanquishing the corporate lobbyists and theocratic inquisitors who seek to destroy him, Mr. McCain would begin to refurbish a party that has wandered far from the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

That doesn’t mean he is quite the straight-shooting paragon advertised in much of the mainstream media coverage of his campaign. During his career in the Senate, Mr. McCain has too often served the same special interests he now promises to curb. He has only very lately noticed the destructive effects of right-wing fundamentalism in a diverse, broadly tolerant democracy. He disappointingly refused to repudiate his neo-Confederate supporters and their flag, and then lied on national television about his South Carolina coordinator’s responsibility for publishing a racially inflammatory magazine.

He is, moreover, a pretty conventional right-winger on such critical issues as abortion rights, national health insurance and the minimum wage. As that record becomes better known, Mr. McCain is likely to encounter increasing resistance from moderate voters (and even journalists).

There is a faddish aspect to his present popularity that will eventually fade. There is plenty of foolishness written and said about him, notably in the Rupert Murdoch-controlled media. What he does offer, to conservatives and the country, is a chance to reform the Republican Party by throwing out boodlers and bigots-and to say goodbye to all that.