With Super-Tuesday just days away the eyes of
America’s media are firmly fixed to see who will run for President in November. With
it now being almost a forgone conclusion that Al Gore
will carry the Democrat’s torch, attention has shifted to the Republicans. If you
asked who would be the Republican nomination a few months ago most people would have
replied that Bush all but has it in the bag. But
thanks to John McCain the Texas Governor has no
such comforts anymore.
For both McCain and Bush, it is a tough contest – and it
will get tougher soon as they fight it out over key states like New York and California.
McCain gained momentum in New Hampshire, which in turn invigorated the Bush camp for their
comeback in South Carolina. Yet McCain then recovered some of the lost ground with the
victory in Michigan and Arizona. Part of the explanation for McCain’s success has
been his appeal with independents (who can vote in open primaries). He may well need to
change this strategy to win in the closed primaries coming up, but my concern is with his
apparent popularity outside the GOP. There’s much talk of McCain being popular even
with Democrats – which brings me to the simple question: Why? McCain may be a
maverick but he’s no moderate. What is it that would make a Democrat support a man
who has described himself as the true heir to the Reagan Republicans?
At the root of McCain’s appeal is his promotion of himself as a new kind of
politician. A genuine guy who speaks his mind. Who is not just programmed with scripted
soundbites. To hammer this point home he calls his campaign bus ‘the straight-talk
express’. Rather than hide his personal flaws he flaunts them – joking about his
fiery temper. The candour gives McCain a human touch, putting across the message that he
understands ordinary people, has integrity and, above all, is honest.
The perception of McCain in this light is bolstered by some of his policies. He has
made a name for himself as an advocate for reform of the campaign finance laws. He vows to
break the iron triangle of special interests, lobbyists and lawmakers that have corrupted
the democratic process. This places him at odds with the mainstream GOP opinion –
where meddling with campaign finance laws could potentially cut off the blood stream that
powers their grip on Washington. By supporting a policy that is seen to oppose his
party’s interest, McCain advances himself as an independent thinker, a man of belief
and an outsider in Washington.
To complement the new kind of politician you need to have a new kind of campaign.
McCain has pledged not to take the low road of negative campaigning – claiming that
the American people are sick of it, despite all the evidence that it still influences
The media and politicos have bought McCain’s image. Hence many independents and
Democrats have looked beyond normal party loyalties. Even those who say they wouldn’t
vote for him admit they like him. This is the end result of a successful courtship of
favourable media attention. But Democrats and independent moderates should not kid
themselves – McCain is a right-winger.
It is easy to see how people fall for his charm. He seems like the kind of guy you
could get along with, the sort you wouldn’t mind going for a drink with. But then
again the kind of person most of us like to drink with are the last people we would ever
want to hold the most powerful office in the world. Between the straight-talk and the
jokes voters should remember his record. McCain has consistently spoken out against
abortion rights; supports the death penalty; endorsed Newt Gingrich’s Contract with
America; voted for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning; opposed legislation
protecting gays from job discrimination; opposed gun control measures; promises to tear up
the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia if they refuse to renegotiate it; and voted
against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The list goes on, but the point is simple
– McCain is no friend to Democrats or centrists.
If you look at McCain’s pledge to run a more positive campaign, it seems that the
‘straight talk express’ has made a bit of detour. In the Michigan primary the
McCain campaign ran a push poll targeted to Catholic voters emphasising Bush’s recent
visit to Bob Jones University (an institution known to have expressed anti-Catholic
feelings). When reports of these strategic calls first emerged, McCain claimed they had
nothing to with his campaign. However, it turned out that the Arizona Senator had approved
these calls before they were made. Maybe McCain’s spin doctors will argue that this
inconsistency shows he has all the qualities of Ronald Reagan, including the memory
skills. But the fact of the matter is McCain is not a new kind of politician, and is just
as willing to use negative tactics when it suits him.
Much of McCain’s popularity stems from the media’s love of insurgents. George
W. Bush had been in the spotlight for too long as the front-runner. Six months ago it was
assumed he would walk the nomination. They had plenty of time to see his inadequacies as a
candidate, and demand more detail about his policies. Then along came McCain with his
refreshing style and openness. For as long as he remained an outsider or an underdog,
there was no harm in giving him favourable attention. Democrats and independents could
safely admit to quite liking him for they knew he wouldn’t become President. The
closeness in the current primaries should serve as a wake up call. Even though he
criticises leaders of the religious right, McCain is a solid Republican – a McCain
Presidency would be bad news for people in America and overseas.
McCain’s only actions that should please Democrats and independents are
inadvertent. By staging such a bitter primary battle, McCain has helped to drain
Bush’s much feared finances, and ensured that whichever candidate emerges will be
poorer and weaker by the end of it. In turn this split within the GOP could pave the way
for a Gore victory in November – a cause worthy of Democrats’ and
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