Politics & Media

Winning With the Old Brand

McCain's got a nice boost in the polls by catering to cultural warriors, which is a shame to those conservatives who value real ideas. Now the financial crisis may bury him for it.

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Photo by marcn.

This was supposed to be the year that Republicans needed to revise their Reagan-era platform, stop waving the bloody shirt at 1960s radicals, and otherwise repackage conservatism into something new if they were going to have the slightest chance against an ascendant Democratic Party. They could become Sam's Club Republicans, Nelson Rockefeller 2.0, or a brand new McCain-Lieberman Party.
 
But if the GOP ran on tax cuts, culture wars, and all the hardy conservative perennials, wise men said the party would seem as irrelevant as yesterday's Willie Horton ad. If you are one of those wise men, don't feel bad—I thought so too.
 
Except for one small problem: neither John McCain nor nearly half of the American electorate that stubbornly supports him in the worst political environment for Republicans since Watergate seem to have gotten the memo. McCain was thought to be the empty vessel into which all the right's reformers poured their hopes for a New, Improved Brand of Republicanism. And why not? The Arizona senator didn't seem to have much use for the old one. After losing the nomination to George W. Bush in 2000, McCain spent four years as a thorn in his party's side. He supported a Democratic patient's bill of rights and teamed with Joe Lieberman to close the so-called gun show loophole.
 
The Original Maverick sided with the Democrats on the Bush tax cuts, First Amendment-shredding campaign finance reform, immigration policy, cap and trade, the treatment of terror detainees, and all manner of federal regulations. Even when McCain stuck with Bush and his party, like on Iraq and the surge, he frequently managed to do so in such a way that still made it sound like he ready to bolt.
 
In fact, as late as 2004 there were persistent rumors that he was going to bolt. There were stories about McCain entertaining a vice-presidential nod from President Bush's Democratic challenger John Kerry. Some Democrats even claim that McCain's top strategist approached them about switching parties in 2001, pulling a Jeffords before Jim Jeffords did. (McCain insiders dispute this.)
 
So if it was reasonable to agree with Tom Davis that the Republican dog food needed to be taken off the shelves, McCain—a largely accidental nominee who benefited from his GOP primary opponents destroying themselves and each other—seemed the man for the job.
 
McCain may yet revert to post-partisan form, and the crisis on Wall Street could deflate his post-convention bounce and once again make Barack Obama seem invincible. But a funny thing happened on the way to Obama's coronation: McCain took the lead in the polls and he did it by running the old-fashioned way—like an honest-to-God Republican.
 
Gone was the opposition to President Bush's tax cuts. Now he wants to make them permanent, emphasizing that his Democratic opponent will raise taxes if elected. He said he would vote against the immigration bill he once helped write to keep border-security hawks from dubbing him "Amnesty John." He even mocked Obama for appearing at a fundraiser with Barbra Streisand and his Democratic rival on the hot-button culture war issue of sex ed.
 
On domestic energy production, the Republican senator who once stood with the environmentalists against the Bush administration (and still opposes drilling in ANWR) now joins in the popular battle cry, "Drill baby, drill!" The man who once seemed jittery when conservative radio talk show hosts and 527s threatened to attack Obama now likens the Democrat to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
 
Nothing, however, put McCain more firmly in the right's camp than his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. By picking Palin, he not only electrified his conservative base, watched his poll numbers climb among both women and wingnuts, and watched an extra $10 million pour into his campaign coffers in a short period of time. McCain put himself on the side of pro-lifers, gun enthusiasts, evangelicals, and small-town America.
 
Democrats initially thought this was too kitschy to work. They still haven't adapted once the early results suggested they were wrong.
 
Some conservatives weren't very happy either. Even some of Palin's admirers on the right nevertheless bemoaned McCain's cautious, conventional campaign, wondering when he was going to distinguish himself from George H.W. Bush in 1988. The Atlantic's Ross Douthat complained that instead of getting creative, the "McCain campaign decided that they didn't want to take the kind of risks that real ideological experimentation would entail."
 
Culture11's James Poulos was both more colorful and more coruscating: "The trouble isn't that McCain's campaign is the worstest of all times… The trouble is that regardless of whether McCain's campaign even cracks the top ten sleaziest campaigns in American history, it simply sucks." He concluded, "Even those who might give it a pass on general principles of hardball must realize that under circumstances like these it could do permanent damage to the reputation of the Republican party as a storehouse (or at least a forum) for credible and conscientious conservative ideas."
 
Maybe. Except it's hard to argue with results. For the first time, McCain pulled ahead in the Real Clear Politics national polling average and he remains tied with Obama even after the dislocations on Wall Street that tend to doom Republicans. He is still ahead on their electoral map. In the space of a few weeks, McCain has gone from a candidate with little chance of winning to one that even James Carville and Stanley Greenberg give an even chance of making it to the White House.
 
The only conspicuous lunge toward swing voters McCain made since showing new signs of life was his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. And even those remarks were heavy on references to fighting, presented to a portion of the electorate that soured on the Iraq war four years ago. Most of his gains, however, have come as he began finally serving up red meat to red-staters. McCain's lack of fresh thinking may be unsatisfying in all sorts of ways to those of us who toil in the realm of ideas. But in terms of practical politics, the McCain campaign has proved imaginative and skillful enough.
 
Wall Street's woes could change all this, of course. Maybe it already has. While more hostile to spending and friendly to markets than Obama, McCain wasn't kidding when he said he didn't know much about the economy. His populist crusading for more regulations will put him in a bidding war with the Democrats he cannot win and make conservatives just shake their heads.
 
But McCain has benefited greatly from tax-cutting, culture-warring, and liberal-baiting in this election cycle. If the lack of a coherent, innovative conservative economic agenda for the middle class is currently his biggest problem, then he needs a little more Reagan, not less.

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