Another Shakeup in the McCain Campaign

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Two top aides have left Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, which has been struggling in the polls and with fundraising. John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate, talks with Madeleine Brand about how the Republican field is shaping up with McCain looking down and almost out and Fred Thompson up and almost in.

The Downfall of a Frontrunner


McCain will be hard-pressed to repeat his smashing 2000 victory in New Hampshire if he can't revitalize his campaign. hide caption

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Another frontrunner who watched a lead fritter away. hide caption

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Now More Than Ever

1972 was the last time a GOP ticket had neither a Bush nor a Dole. hide caption

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Sixty-three years ago today, President Roosevelt says he's available for a fourth term. hide caption

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From the beginning, he was the leading presidential candidate of his party. Some polls showed the senator had the best chance of winning the general election. He had tons of endorsements from establishment figures. And though the ideologues in his party had little use for him, he retained a lot of support from his earlier run for national office.

Despite all that, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie failed to win the Democratic nomination in 1972.

I've been thinking quite a bit about the decline of Ed Muskie in '72 as I've watched the downward spiral of Sen. John McCain's campaign. There are differences between the two, to be sure. But I remember the good press that Muskie got in 1968, when he was Hubert Humphrey's running mate; how he rallied his party with a nationally broadcast 1970 election-eve speech that brilliantly contrasted with President Nixon's rather strident effort to rally the GOP troops; and how he headed into 1972 with a head of steam.

Similarly, McCain became the darling of the media in 2000, when he straight-talked his way to a landslide victory in the New Hampshire primary and took on religious conservative leaders as well as Republican Party leaders, only to fall to the George W. Bush onslaught. The feeling was that, after eight years of Bush, we would see the emergence of a triumphant John McCain. It's not happening. And it brings me back to the campaign of 36 years ago.

The unpopular Vietnam War was raging in 1971-72, and while Muskie was opposed to it, he did not do so with the fervor of one of his rivals for the nomination, Sen. George McGovern (D-SD). Cautious in nature, Muskie also suffered when Humphrey, his ticket-mate from four years earlier, decided to join the fray as well. Still, Muskie, who was born just 25 miles from New Hampshire, was the odds-on favorite to win the primary there in '72; a poll in January had him with 65 percent of the vote. Most of his opponents, except for McGovern, stayed out of the state in anticipation of a huge Muskie win.

But Muskie's emotional response on the streets of Manchester to a scathing editorial, in the Union Leader newspaper, attacking his wife did not help his cause. He won the March 7 primary, but with an unimpressive 46 percent of the vote. A week later he finished a dismal fourth in Florida, and that was the beginning of the end. A similar fourth-place finish in Wisconsin led to his decision to suspend his campaign in late April.

Another unpopular war is raging in 2007, and that has hurt McCain's effort as well. Unlike what Muskie faced, McCain's political problems with the war stem not so much from within his party. If anything, it's that he fixed his star to the same guy who ended his hopes in 2000. And with more and more Americans feeling that the war is a lost cause, the result is that McCain's valiant but questionable choice has led many of the independents who found him so appealing seven years ago to turn away from him.

Even more damning is McCain's stewardship of the failed immigration overhaul bill in the Senate. That's what has really hurt his candidacy. The bill, often derided by its critics as nothing less than amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants in the country, was anathema to conservatives everywhere. The more McCain argued on its behalf, the more his polling numbers took a nosedive (and his fundraising suffered).

I am not one who is bowled over by headlines touting the money the candidates have raised (as I was just saying to President Phil Gramm). It's an artificial and facile approach to judging who should be president. And as Stu Rothenberg pointed out in Roll Call this week, McCain outraised Democrat John Edwards by $3 million in the second quarter of the year, but no one is saying the Edwards candidacy is about to fold.

Still, it's hard to be competitive when your fundraising is stagnant and, in McCain's case, there may be no cash on hand. So while Mitt Romney is on the air in many of the early primary and caucus states, and while Rudy Giuliani may have a ton in the bank, McCain has been laying off staff and limiting his efforts to just Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. It's a wonder how his campaign, which raised some $25 million this year, managed to spend it all and have so little to show for it. His candidacy is not over, but at this point, it's hard to make the case he can recover in time to win the nomination.

THE LIBBY COMMUTATION: A lot of reaction to last week's column on the decision by President Bush to commute the sentence of former Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. The mail has been overwhelmingly negative, not only to Bush's action, but to my comment that I didn't think the decision would resonate in 2008 (given everything else that's going on). Here's a sampling:

James Boggs of Missoula, Mont.: "If, in fact, Bush commuted Libby's sentence, as it seems, as a quid pro quo, wouldn't this be an impeachable crime? With the commutation, and a likely pardon down the road, now Libby has no incentive to testify." (Similarly, Allan Silver of Albany, Ore.; Dave Bell of Romeoville, Ill.; and Kenn Buckley of Columbus, Ohio.)

Srinivas Savaram of Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India: "We already know that Mr. Bush and his coterie are not ones to care about the country — present or future. Amid all the 'holier than thou' rhetoric, is there anyone out there who really cares about the impact of the commutation to justice in the country? And the signals it is sending to the rest of the world?"

Tim Douglas of Nashville, Tenn.: "How can the commutation of Libby be questioned when the whole prosecution was conducted by a special investigator run amok – someone who knew that Libby was innocent of the 'crime' being investigated? This whole event is a political sham."

Stephen Coveney of Boston, Mass.: "To the gentleman from England who asked [in last week's column] who the hell the Clintons were to criticize the Libby commutation, they're American citizens, that's who they are. And as such, despite Bill Clinton's poor record in the same area, they have a right to opine on any subject they choose. It's called Free Speech."

Joe Rater of St. Louis, Mo.: "I just want to point out that no one in the mainstream media, NPR included, is discussing the fact that Bush's commutation is directly protecting himself, the vice president, Karl Rove and others in the administration. By commuting the sentence, Bush takes the pressure off Libby to 'unobstruct' justice and come clean about who in the administration was behind illegally leaking classified information in a petty, sleazy scheme. While some of Bill Clinton's pardons were of dubious justification, they lacked the huge conflict of interest present here, and I don't see major media providing that context."

Louis Volpe of Stuart, Fla.: "It is amazing when the mainstream press is criticized for being pro-Democrat and then get indignant and attempt to defend their supposed impartiality. Yet I had to read almost to the bottom of your article on the Libby pardon to see one mention of Clinton's 11th-hour mass pardons. What you did not leave out is that Libby had represented Marc Rich in a case that had nothing to do with his conviction, yet by inference you hoped to demonstrate some type of hypocrisy. I am not a fan of President Bush, but the concept of fair and impartial journalism is about as foreign to today's crop of hacks as penny loafers would be to our youth. You guys just don't get it. ... My question is how do you sleep at night? How can you close your eyes to all that Saint Clinton did, forgetting about Monica and his slew of liaisons? My three-year old could read one of your pieces and determine that you are a journalist with very liberal leanings. Yes, I know it says on your bio that you are the NPR Political Editor; however, I suggest the title be changed to Political Hack for the Democrats."

Susan Zenier of Moscow, Idaho: "It's time to storm the Bastille!"

Diane Tanner of Corpus Christi, Texas: "Throughout the investigation, the trial, and now the 'pardon,' has Bush ever once apologized to Valerie Plame for the destruction of her career? These were his henchmen that blew her cover on his behalf, so he bears responsibility for their actions."

Douglas Montgomery of San Francisco, Calif.: "Forget the Ford, Bush and Clinton pardons. The more comparable case is if President Nixon had commuted the sentences of the Watergate burglars, thereby removing the risk that they would, under duress, cooperate with the prosecutor and implicate the Nixon White House. Can you imagine what the Democratic Congress would have done had Nixon done this? They would have impeached him. That's what the current Congress should do now."

Zenon Pylyshyn of New York City: "What is so surprising about the Libby commutation is not that Bush did it — we have learned to expect hypocrisy and above-the-law behavior from that quarter. Rather it's the reaction from op-ed columnists and pundits who are not the least insulted by Bush's hypocrisy from someone who cares naught for the rule of law."

Edith Borromeo of Los Angeles, Calif.: "Why can't we impeach Bush? Or Cheney? Are they too powerful that they can get away with their lies, corruption, dishonesty, and other impeachable grounds?"

Delfina Jones of Seattle, Wash.: "NPR is part of the Mainstream Media, so it is not surprising that you don't think this story has legs."

John Grant of Northville, Mich.: "As a former investigative reporter, I think there are more serious questions about Libbygate than your cynical 'does the story have legs.' There appears to have been a serious breach of national security. How did that happen? How did Richard Armitage learn about Valerie Plame's position at the CIA? Who decided to spread that information through media sources? Is there any move to tighten the law so that someone could actually be convicted for outing a covert CIA agent?"

Keith Decker, Salem, N.J.: "Isn't it true that Bill Clinton was charged and convicted of the same crime as Scooter Libby? If so, you won't print it."

Bob Merkin, Northampton, Mass.: "If we abandon — or a president abandons — a full commitment to equal justice for all, what alternative theory of criminal justice can we justify in its place? We look at the president constitutionally empowered to bestow such mercies, and we see a lawful scoundrel giving the finger to every voter in America."


Q: When was the last presidential election where neither the names Bush nor Dole appeared on the Republican ticket? – Alan Burke, Peru, Ind.

A: You'd have to go back to 1972, when President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew were seeking re-election. Since then, Bob Dole was the VP candidate in 1976, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won in both 1980 and 1984, Bush ran with Dan Quayle in 1988 and 1992, Dole returned as the presidential nominee in 1996, and Bush's son George W. won in both 2000 and 2004. That streak is likely to end in 2008, unless former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush or N.C. Sen. Elizabeth Dole are somehow named to the ticket.

Q: When was the last time America had a wide-open field of presidential candidates in both parties — as in no incumbent and no vice president heir-apparent? – Josie Roberts, Pittsburgh, Pa.

A: A lot of people point to 1952. But at this time in that campaign cycle, President Truman was expected to run for another term (he didn't withdraw until his surprising announcement on March 29, 1952, following his defeat in the New Hampshire Democratic primary). Meanwhile, Vice President Alben Barkley, 74 years of age, had hinted of his availability all spring and finally made his candidacy official in July. But he was considered too old to be a serious contender, and many of the labor leaders he had counted on to back him went elsewhere. His best showing was the 73-1/2 delegates he won on the second ballot at the Chicago convention.

That brings us to 1928, when neither President Calvin Coolidge nor Vice President Charles Dawes ran. So I would go with 1928.

(Caveat: As Jeff Roberts of Ankeny, Iowa reminds us, there were indeed Dawes for President buttons circulating in '28. But he never ran.)

And speaking of buttons:

Q: I'm a huge fan of your weekly Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation as well as your podcast. But I want to say that I miss your political button puzzles that used to appear at The Washington Post Web site, and I just hate that they ended at the same time the world came crashing down. Coincidence? I think not. Any chance we'll see a return of ScuttleButton? Not to put any pressure on you, but if there aren't any more puzzles, the terrorists will have won. I know you don't want that. — P.D. Wadler, Chicago, Ill.

A: A day doesn't go by when I don't think about how much fun I had doing those weekly button puzzles, and e-mails about this subject continue to arrive all the time. And your memory is very good: the Post ended the feature shortly before Sept. 11, 2001.

However, you should know that I have been in preliminary negotiations about doing not only a ScuttleButton book, but bringing the puzzles back on a weekly basis. Details to come.

But until then, here's a new button puzzle to tide you over. (For you ScuttleButton rookies: take one word per button to arrive at a name or slogan. Answer below.)

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