'McCainism' Could Set a Radical Path for the GOP In a presidential election year in which a black man and a white woman are each staging historic candidacies, John McCain — the maverick Republican — may be the most radical party nominee.
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'McCainism' Could Set a Radical Path for the GOP

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'McCainism' Could Set a Radical Path for the GOP

'McCainism' Could Set a Radical Path for the GOP

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

John McCain is in Israel today, part of a weeklong tour in the Middle East and Europe. It's clear where McCain stands on the war in Iraq. He says victory can and should be achieved and he opposes a hasty pullout.

But what's less clear at the moment is McCain's domestic policy agenda. When he returns to the U.S., the presumptive Republican presidential nominee plans to go on a bio tour to reintroduce himself to voters. McCain will give a series of domestic policy speeches that may explain the direction he wants to take his party and the country.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The buzz word of this year's presidential campaign is: change.

Just by their race and gender, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama embody change. But measured a different way by their voting records, both are orthodox Democrats who deviate very little from the mainstream of their party. Instead, it's the white male in the race, Republican John McCain, who could offer a more radical departure for his party.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Republican Representative, Georgia; Former Speaker, U.S. House of Representatives): John McCain couldn't be a status quo person if his life depended on it.

LIASSON: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich knows something about boom-and-bust cycles in politics. Right now, with the Republican Party in retreat, he thinks McCain might be just the change the GOP needs.

Mr. GINGRICH: McCain may turn out to be a surprisingly timely break in what would otherwise have been, I think, a Republican disaster. His willingness to do what he believes in and not care about the political conventions will certainly break up both the pattern of domination by the regular Republican establishment and the pattern of movement conservatives defining the party.

LIASSON: McCain won the nomination in spite of opposition from big parts of the Republican establishment and the conservative base.

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, one of McCain's closest allies in the Senate, says now McCain could have a profound effect on his party.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): there's aspects of John McCain's philosophy as a Republican that will tie us back to those principles that really made the party different from Democrats, and there's also an aspect of John McCain that will take the party in a new direction: Global climate change, campaign finance reform, immigration reform, issues that present a new ideology that we are to embrace working with Democrats.

It's not a crime in the McCain Republican Party to work with Democrats for the greater good.

LIASSON: McCain himself wears his bipartisan credentials on his sleeve. Here he is after the March 4th primaries.

(Soundbite of political speech)

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): The American people's patience is at an end for politicians who value ambition over principle and for partisanship that is less a contest of ideas than an uncivil brawl over the spoils of power.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: McCainism, out of necessity, would be a rejection of the hyper-partisanship of President Bush's approach to governing and Karl Rove's approach to winning elections.

Just as a president, John McCain could not expect to govern without a lot of Democratic support in Congress. A candidate, McCain could not win the White House without the votes of independents and swing voters.

Newt Gingrich.

Mr. GINGRICH: I think McCain is determined to figure out how to have a governing coalition that ultimately has to be about 60 percent of the country. I think he understands that this red-versus-blue base mobilization is crazy in the long run. It works for one election, then it's destructive. But beyond that, and it (unintelligible) you can't govern Washington at 51 percent.

LIASSON: In 1992, Bill Clinton called himself a new Democrat when he wanted to move his party to the center. In 2000, George W. Bush called himself a compassionate conservative when he wanted to break with the hard edge of the Gingrich revolution.

There is no slogan yet for McCain's brand of conservatism. But his supporters describe him as a Republican reformer ready to tackle campaign finance, immigration, entitlements, earmarks and the tax code.

And they say that he would also try to appeal to a group of swing voters that have been hard for more traditional Republican candidates to reach: the suburban working-class, or as Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty calls them, Sam's Club Republicans. That is, as opposed to country club Republicans.

Governor SAM PAWLENTY (Republican, Minnesota): We can't just be the party of the country club, we have to be the party of Sam's Club. And if you go to Sam's Club and you ask people what matters to them, they say basically this, you know, I know government is important, but please don't overburden me with taxes. I would like my child to have a good education and a shot at as good of a better life than mine, so they're interested in school funding and reform. And they're worried about health care costs, and they want to know, without having the government take it over, can you do something to help them make health care more affordable. And on each of those, John McCain has spoken pretty strongly in ways that I think would be attractive to a Sam's Club Republican.

LIASSON: When it comes to bread-and-butter issues though, the Democrats have a long-standing advantage. And McCain's supporters say in the next six months, he must unveil his own agenda on the subprime mortgage crisis, the economy and energy. Can he do it?

Michael Gerson is a former Bush speechwriter and a McCain admirer.

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Former Speechwriter for Pres. Bush): The major criticism of John McCain you keep - you hear among colleagues on Capitol Hill and others is that he is engaged on the international front. He is not particularly intellectually engaged on this domestic front, and he is going to need to be in this election, because we've moved from an international focus to a much more domestic focus.

LIASSON: Others are even more skeptical for different reasons.

Mr. BILL GALSTON (Former White House Domestic Policy Aide for Pres. Clinton): Is John McCain potentially the Theodore Roosevelt of the early 21st century? That's the question on the table.

LIASSON: That's Bill Galston, a former Clinton White House domestic policy aide and this year, a supporter of Hillary Clinton.

Mr. GALSTON: And the answer is, it would depend on which President McCain showed up, because his campaign right now is a promiscuous heap of interesting ideas that will not cohere in one administration. So if the question is, does he represent in those areas a potential departure from what has become encrusted Republican orthodoxy? The answer is yes, absolutely. But then you can ask a different set of questions.

LIASSON: Galston says despite McCain's break with his party on a long list of issues, from climate change to torture, the task of moving the GOP in his direction will be next to impossible.

Mr. GALSTON: Can he reconcile the short-term political imperative of unifying his party with a slightly longer term general election-oriented political imperative of charting a new course for the Republican Party?

It's going to require a very fine political touch to square that circle, and I think the jury's out on whether the straight-talking, blunt-talking John McCain is capable of doing that given his tortured history with the conservative base of his own party.

LIASSON: And McCain's task will be even harder this year, he will be trying to chart a new path for Republicans, in a campaign where the Democrats will be spending all their energy trying to frame his as nothing more than a carbon copy of George W. Bush.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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