Anyone who underestimates John McCain does so at her or his own peril. I remember watching him conduct early New Hampshire town halls more than a year ago. It wasn’t only that he answered questions; he engaged with the audience – he connected. Whether or not one buys into the message, the idea of "straight talk" resonates at this moment in our history. His and its political potency is demonstrated in a comeback that pales Bill Clinton’s in comparison. McCain’s “fall” in the early stages was attributed to being on the wrong side of the war debate, but I think his rise speaks to a yearning for authenticity felt by a majority of Americans, regardless of party. If you have any doubt, consider the counterintuitive victory over Romney among those in Florida who consider the economy our most pressing problem. Voters opted for the “real deal” candidate without economic credentials over the “Jell-O” candidate, a private equity man who shifts with every prevailing opportunity and wind. Unless something dramatic happens, McCain will be the Republican nominee. He will be a very formidable candidate.
McCain, and even more so the McCain-Huckabee ticket now being bandied about, offers an unambiguous choice against Hillary Clinton, but most especially against Barack Obama. In the upcoming months as the debate of ideas takes hold and the hype of horserace dims somewhat, the differences will become clear. These are serious candidates and they will insist on substance. Americans will be forced to look at where the nominees stand and what they represent. If, as I continue to hope, Obama emerges on the Democratic side, the oratorical choice between past and future will be given new and more vivid force.
There is no way one can argue that McCain represents the new. His maverick streak and reputation notwithstanding, he has hardly been a bystander during the so-called Reagan revolution. That includes virtually 100% support of Bush, for whom he vigorously campaigned in 2004. He is anti-choice and committed to remaking the courts, one of the core beliefs that he included in his victory speech last night. He is a serial tax and spending cutter who believes in as little government as possible – "government should get out of the way". as he puts it. If he does indeed select Huckabee, be assured that we would see even more cracks in that “wall of separation” between church and state. And let’s not minimize the importance or potential of a running mate. If we haven’t learned that lesson, shame on us. If elected, McCain would be the oldest incoming President, one who has a history of serious medical problems. Succession is and must be an issue whomever he selects.
McCain will be running on national security. He vigorously supported our country’s two most unpopular and disastrous wars: Viet Nam and Iraq. He was a heroic victim of the first, which has become the central leitmotif of his narrative. His unyielding commitment to “victory” in the second is informed by a visceral “not again, not this time”. It is not just business, it’s very personal. If George Bush was seeking to complete his father’s unfinished business, McCain is desperate not to experience Saigon redux, even if once again self inflicted by wrongheaded policy. Of course part of what makes McCain so potentially potent is that his years of sacrifice have effectively inoculated him from all but the most elliptical critique of another misguided war. Americans don’t suffer the overt criticism of heroes like McCain lightly. It won’t be easy.
Florida does deserve a footnote: Rudy Giuliani. The pundits will feed us all kinds of reasons why his candidacy evaporated in this election cycle. All of them may have merit. Some of us actually had Rudy as our Mayor and to us the reason for his fall is probably much less complicated. “America’s Mayor” is an alluring romantic myth; his honor is something totally different. Perhaps New Yorkers elected him twice (not guilty), but he would never have made it to any other City Hall. The idea of Rudy was intriguing to people in New Hampshire, where he spent a lot of time and money before “refocusing” solely on Florida. The reality was less compelling, if not tedious. He bombed badly in that primary. So, too, in Florida; they loved Rudy until he moved in and they had to live with him. If Mitt Romney comes off as plastic, Rudy’s incessant smile (evident in all his TV interviews) is a transparent cover-up of the inherent nastiness that New Yorkers grew to hate, especially in the years between his reelection and 9/11. Remember the old “What’s my Line” quiz show –“will the real Rudy stand up?” He did, and that began his fatal decline.