Why Is McCain Campaigning Like This?

No one who has watched John McCain over much of his career can think he's happy about the campaign he's been running for president.

People who knew McCain when he represented the Navy on Capitol Hill in the 1970s, or during his 26 years in Congress or his first presidential run in 2000, do not recognize him in the caricature seen so far in the debates much less in the brutal TV satires of those debates.

The McCain of the moment is deeply defensive about his party and his president, and just as deeply conflicted about what Republicans should do next.

One night, he tells a national TV audience he wants the federal government to spend $300 billion to buy up troubled mortgages and renegotiate them. That is a profoundly non-Republican idea that has many of his colleagues shaking their heads.

A few days later his closest friend in the Senate, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, tells another national TV audience McCain will cut taxes on capital gains to help investors. That is surely a Republican idea, but curiously timed. Do voters feel like it's time for another tax cut for Wall Street and the major investor class?

The next day the campaign backs off the tax cuts and says it will have a new plan shortly and needs to be ready to adapt to changing circumstances. Indeed.

Let's be generous for the moment and say that changing one's mind in a crisis is hardly an original sin. Policymakers of every political stripe in every place and time have done the same. Such a highly fluid situation demands fresh thinking and flexibility.

What must be far more disturbing for McCain's longtime fans, and for the candidate himself, is the demagogic tone of his public campaign. The Arizonan may not care for Barack Obama personally, but he resents being reduced to attacking him personally. You can hear and see it in the way McCain bites off the bitter words he must say.

McCain knows his recent strategy has been about fear and suspicion and the dark side of the American psyche. He is clearly uncomfortable with it, which is why he undercut the message himself by correcting supporters who called Obama "an Arab" or wondered if they'd be safe raising a child under an Obama presidency.

Moments such as this suggest the McCain of old is still in there, somewhere. But such moments also ensnare him in a worst-of-both-worlds trap. They please neither the admirers who abhor the brawling tactics nor the backers who beg him to go after Obama hammer and tong.

These warring impulses have raged within McCain's campaign, threatening to send it off the rails. Those who have been with him longest yearn for the "Straight Talk Express" of 2000. But there are also two waves of newer arrivals, one that saved McCain from oblivion a year ago and another that brought new discipline and force to the campaign late in the spring of this year.

In better times, the factions may have coexisted and McCain may not have suffered from their competition. But since the market meltdown, the strain has been showing on all concerned.

With three weeks to go, the nationwide conservative conversation is tinged with dismay. Some are calling for McCain to demonstrate nonpartisan leadership about the economy, the foreign threats and the campaign itself. Others urge "Top Gun" Johnny Mack to blaze away, to bring the haughty Obama to earth.

The problem is that neither approach is likely to work quite the way its advocates say it will because the current predicament of the McCain campaign is not only of its own making, nor is it under anyone's control.

A presidential campaign, like a presidency, must respond to multiple, competing constituencies. A candidate, like a president, can imagine a bold stroke of action that might alter circumstances in his favor, but executing it is another matter entirely. Campaigns are dominated by the imperatives of right now: Things to do today, this hour, this minute. Stepping back to restrategize is close to impossible.

McCain might well want to fly his own plane and chart his own course. But he is piloting something much larger now than he has before, and he is not alone in the cockpit. He must keep in mind the fate of all those depending on him, from down-ballot candidates to the GOP itself and the conservative movement writ large. Doing what he wants is a luxury he can no longer afford.

The party's hard core clamors for a rough-edged ending this fall, both to bloody Obama and to keep the rank and file on fire. Much depends on making November as competitive as possible.
McCain may not be happy about it, but many of the people behind him are not nearly as worried about winning ugly as they are about the consequences of losing badly.

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