Mr. McCain’s predicament calls to mind Michael Bloomberg’s 2005 mayoral re-election campaign in New York in 2005, when his fervent support – over fierce objections from the public – of a lavish stadium on the West Side of Manhattan handed his Democratic foes a potent election year cudgel. But then the state Legislature unceremoniously killed the project, and by November Mr. Bloomberg’s cheerleading for the project was a distant and irrelevant memory.
Similarly, the best political outcome for Mr. McCain may now be the death of his immigration plan in early July. As embarrassing as it might be, the GOP base might, at least theoretically, take its “victory” and eventually move on to other issues where Mr. McCain is better positioned. Until the Fourth of July, though, the immigration bleeding is certain to continue for Mr. McCain, with the new South Carolina poll results likely replicated in other primary and caucus states.
In the same way, September now looms as a potential moment of truth for the destructive force of Iraq on Mr. McCain’s standing with the broad American electorate. For all his chest-thumping rhetoric about the nobleness of the war, Mr. McCain’s only realistic hope of reconnecting with the independent voters who once flocked to him is through significant scale- back of the U.S. presence in Iraq. But as long as the futile carnage continues, Mr. McCain’s bullheadedness will overshadow his appealing independent-friendly credentials on issues like immigration.
Mr. McConnell’s “Face the Nation” appearance coincided with further signs that Congressional Republicans will break with the administration’s Iraq policy in September, when General David Petraeus will report on the progress of the “troop surge” implemented earlier this year. A column by George Will this weekend featured a pronouncement from Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, who changed his posture on the war last December, that “I can think of a dozen Republican senators who will be with me in September.”
For his part, Mr. McConnell refused host Bob Schieffer’s queries about what specifically the Senate GOP will do if General Petraeus issues a discouraging report. But he still said more than enough when he offered that “I find growing support in the Senate among Republicans, and from some Democrats for that matter, for the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group,” which calls for a draw-down in U.S. forces in Iraq and diplomatic engagement with neighboring states to bring about a political solution.
The ISG report, authored by James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton, was savaged by the right as defeatist propaganda when it was issued over the winter. Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, soulmates on the Iraq question, were among those who objected to it and on “This Week,” Mr. Graham, held fast to the view that Iraq is a decades-long struggle for the United States.
“September of ’07 – is it about the future of the Middle East or is it about the next elections?” he asked.
For most Republicans in Washington, who rode the war to political victories in 2002 and 2004 before losing the Congress because of it last year, the answer will probably be the latter, given the approach of 2008. A bloc of Republican defections in the House and Senate will either give the Democrats enough votes to over-ride a presidential veto and instate a withdrawal timeline, or compel the White House to recognize the changed reality and compromise. As with immigration, a legislative loss for Mr. McCain in September will be beneficial to his presidential campaign, potentially turning down the ’08 volume on Iraq.
Only with immigration on the back-burner can Mr. McCain curry favor with the conservatives on whom his and every Republican’s strategy hinges. And only with the electorate’s outrage over Iraq quelled can Mr. McCain expect general election voters to consider him as something other than a delusional articulator of pro-war talking points. Of course, even if both issues subside, Mr. McCain’s ship may already have taken on too much water. But we won’t know for sure until the July and September dates have come and gone.
Until then, he should expect that most Sunday mornings will look as bleak for his campaign as this one.