The revival of John McCain’s presidential candidacy, now expected to carry him through to his party’s nomination, can be interpreted as either proof of the judgment of Republican primary voters or evidence of the paucity of alternative choices. Certainly, it confirms the wisdom of betting against the predictions of the national press corps, which produced so many sorrowful postmortems on his campaign.
Very soon, if not instantly, the same pundits who wrote off Mr. McCain’s chances will be assuring us that the recent has-been is now an electoral juggernaut. They will describe him resplendent in political valor, reforming zeal and militant patriotism, and of course brimming with “straight talk.” Of such shiny publicity has the Arizona senator’s image been built over the past decade or so.
What remains to be seen is whether his admirable image will withstand fresh scrutiny, if and when he becomes the presumptive nominee—and how independents, Democrats and conservative Republicans will respond to an updated portrait of him. The price of his victory may well be measured in principles dropped and in positions flipped and flopped.
He has quietly walked away from his former allies on campaign finance reform. He has run away from his own immigration-reform legislation. He has sold away the commitment to economic fairness and fiscal discipline that once led him to oppose the skewed Bush tax cuts.
On at least one issue, however, he remains absolutely consistent. As he said not long ago, he favors dispatching generations of American soldiers to Iraq for a hundred years or more, while spending trillions of borrowed dollars not only on that war, but others to come in unspecified countries. “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” is the mindless motto of the McCain foreign policy.
In an election year when voters say they are demanding change from the failures and follies of the Bush years, this political profile could create serious problems for any candidate. For Mr. McCain, the dangers may be even greater, because while he resolutely upholds an unpopular war, he has forfeited the single issue that could most easily inflame the Republican base as well as many independents.
Any other Republican running against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would quickly put the Democrats on the defensive over their refusal to promise that millions of undocumented workers and their families will be deported someday soon, or ever. Any other Republican would be able to portray the Democratic Party as advocates of unrestricted immigration and “amnesty” for immigrants who have entered the United States illegally. It is simple to conjure a negative ad showing dark, frightening foreigners, with a script bemoaning lost jobs, rising crime and welfare costs, even the threat of terrorism. Stimulating fear has become a tradition in American elections.
But Mr. McCain cannot plausibly endorse or benefit from that kind of demagogic commercial. After all, he was for amnesty before he was against it, as his conservative critics might put it. And much as he may now wish to pretend that the issue is moot, his name remains on the reform bill sponsored by Senator Edward Kennedy.
Advisers to Mr. McCain may plan to mount a different brand of fear-based attack, much as former White House adviser Karl Rove did so successfully during the 2002 and 2004 elections. That campaign would feature ads assaulting the Democrats as disloyal and timid, for daring to voice even the mildest objection to the Bush administration’s surveillance and torture policies.
Dramatic commercials might steal a page from television, with a president trying to decide how to interrogate a suspect who knows where to find the nuclear suitcase bomb. Could we count on a Democrat to authorize the waterboarding in time? Yet that scary scenario won’t work for Mr. McCain, either, because he has stood forthrightly against torture, to the great dismay of many detractors in his own party.
The war in Iraq will afford him the chance to draw sharp distinctions with his Democratic opponent, but that difference will place him on the wrong side of the electorate. He will win points, perhaps, for sticking with the unpopular position. But with the prospect of recession growing each day, his devotion to military solutions and neglect of economic concerns may make him appear not only dangerous but irrelevant.