John McCain did not appear on any of the Sunday morning shows this week, nor was his name mentioned with any particular frequency.
But the conversation on the big three network programs centered on the two topics that have come to define and imperil the Arizona Republican's White House bid: Iraq, where his stay-the-course rhetoric has largely dissolved the straight talk credentials that once made him such a formidable general election candidate, and immigration, which is rapidly eroding several years worth of peaceful overtures by Mr. McCain to the GOP's conservative base.
What emerged from Sunday's shows was a reminder of how far Mr. McCain's stock has plummeted and a sense that if he is to right his sinking presidential ship, two dates loom large: Early July, when the fate of Mr. McCain's immigration "grand bargain" may be clear, and September, when Congressional Republicans will likely press President Bush for the first time to scale back the American presence in Iraq.
As long as those issues predominate, though, Mr. McCain's candidacy appears doomed, a fact underscored on ABC's "This Week," when host George Stephanopoulos highlighted a new poll, released this morning, that shows Mr. McCain's support in the pivotal early primary state of South Carolina collapsing, with a mere 7 percent of respondents backing him, good for a very distant fourth place. (The still-unannounced Fred Thompson led the pack with 25 percent, followed by Rudy Giuliani at 21 percent and Mitt Romney with 11 percent.) Those findings are particularly devastating for Mr. McCain because South Carolina, which George W. Bush used to regain his momentum and to fend off Mr. McCain in the 2000 primaries, is precisely the kind of state where Mr. McCains's militaristic posture and olive branches to the right were supposed to reap dividends in 2008. But his 7 percent is 35 points shy of the 42 percent of the vote he tallied when he came in second in 2000.
Mr. Stephanopoulos confronted Mr. McCain's top South Carolina backer, Senator Lindsay Graham, on the numbers, suggesting they were a direct consequence of Mr. McCain's identification with an immigration compromise that the right has reduced to "amnesty for illegal immigrants."
"I think what will cost John more than anything else is not to be John McCain," Mr. Graham replied, a not-unreasonable assertion given the political mileage Mr. McCain got out of his maverick image earlier this decade. And in many ways, Mr. McCain's defiance of the GOP base in an effort to create a path to citizenship for America's undocumented workers stirs fond memories among general election voters of the McCain they once knew. But in his next breath, Mr. Graham advanced a pragmatic argument that unwittingly demonstrated why the issue so hinders Mr. McCain with the Republican voters who will decide their party's presidential nominee.
"John is telling the Republican Party, ‘If you want to win in '08, you can't win with 22 percent of the Hispanic vote," Mr. Graham said.
Again, his assertion is plainly valid, given the bulging influence of Hispanic voters in American politics, in particular in swing states like New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. But illegal immigration is not a pragmatic topic to the GOP base. It is an emotional one, a matter of stopping the U.S. government from taking any step that doesn't punish those who crossed a border illegally, practicality be damned.
The party has been down this road before, most notably in California just over a decade ago, when Pete Wilson, his gubernatorial re-election prospects doomed, found temporary salvation in Proposition 187, which proposed stripping illegal immigrants and their children of all state services. Like Senators Graham and McCain now, sensible GOP voices like Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp warned their brothers and sisters in California that the scape-goating campaign would cost the party in the long-run. And it has. Besides Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant who has embraced Californians of all ethnic and political stripes, the post-Wilson decade has seen the marked decline of the California Republican Party. But emotion trumped pragmatism in California in '94, and it's prevailing now in the national GOP.
The enervating effect of the immigration issue on Mr. McCain's nomination prospects was highlighted last week when the Senate, prodded by a White House that will otherwise lack a meaningful second-term domestic achievement, opted to revive the stalled debate on the topic. Appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" this morning, Mitch McConnell, the Senate's GOP leader, labeled the reform package's prospects "a mixed picture." In terms of raw politics, though, Mr. McCain is surely less concerned with whether his bill passes or fails than with when the issue will simply go away. Mr. McConnell declared that the Senate will settle it "one way or the other before the Fourth of July."
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.