Jewish World Review March 9, 2000 / 2 Adar II, 5760
If on Monday he had not been angry about the "sleazy money" of George W. Bush's "Texas cronies," it would have been something else. Anger is McCain's metier. It was said of Dwight Eisenhower (and could have been said of Ronald Reagan) that his smile was his philosophy. It is not clear what McCain's philosophy is, other than disdain for "interests" of the "special" sort, but it certainly is not summarized in a smile.
The nation has elected only one president defined by his anger. But Andrew Jackson, he of towering rages and durable grudges, would not wear well in a wired age, when television forces Americans to live in intimacy with presidents. Furthermore, McCain would have brought to the presidency something of Woodrow Wilson's brittle temperament at the time of his struggle with the Senate over ratification of the Versailles Treaty, when Wilson was convinced he had cornered the market on righteousness and would brook no compromise. McCain was the most entertaining candidate in memory, and a McCain presidency would have been as entertaining as Wilson's war with the Senate, but perhaps there should be some limit to the sovereignty of entertainment values in politics.
Journalists created John McCain (one of his top campaign aides candidly called the media McCain's "base") in their own self-image--almost supernaturally honest and virtuous and witty and irreverent--and they worshiped their creation. So it was perhaps to be expected that the McCain episode, being largely an artifact of the media, would wind up absurdly overanalyzed and preposterously overinvested with epochal significance.
Tactically, McCain's campaign has been skillful and novel, brilliantly exploiting the rules of the Republican nominating process--open primaries--and the new fact of saturation political journalism. But ideologically his campaign has been much more a recrudescence of late 19th-century populism than a rethinking of late 20th-century conservatism.
Conservatism is being redefined by exigencies faced by 30 Republican governors governing about two-thirds of the American people. (In 1998 Republican gubernatorial candidates got 4 million more votes than their Democratic opponents.) These governors have principal custody of the principal issue (so far)--education. Which tells you how far along the redefinition of conservatism has progressed: In five years Republicans have gone from vowing to abolish the Department of Education to boasting about giving the department hundreds of millions of dollars more than President Clinton requested.
The last half of the last decade of the 20th century saw the exhaustion of political rhetoric. No serious liberal still believes that conservatives aim to roll back the welfare state, and no serious conservative believes that today's omnipresent government has been imposed by stealth on a reluctant nation in the dead of night.
The next few months will see a repositioning of Bush, a course correction compensating for his rightward swerve to rally conservatives against McCain. Bush, not an angry man, saw his campaign colored darkly by some angry allies. One question Bush must weigh between now and the Philadelphia convention at the end of July is whether his enhanced credibility with conservatives will earn him more latitude in moving toward the center, with policies and perhaps in selecting a running mate.
In 1996, probably for the first time, a president was elected while losing ( by one point) the male vote. Which means Clinton won with those most put off by angry politics--women. McCain's capacious anger, the targets of which include a substantial portion of his party, is just one reason why Bush will be a stronger general election candidate than McCain would have been. Another reason is that McCain, unlike Bush, has 18 years of House and Senate votes for Al Gore to dredge up and misrepresent (as Gore misrepresented, with devastating effect in an Iowa debate, a vote Bill Bradley cast on disaster relief for farmers, and as Bush misrepresented McCain's record on breast cancer research).
In three months Bush has been transformed from someone to whom much seemed to have come a bit too easily--someone whose swift ascent seemed to be a function of lightness--into someone who has shown toughness in earning something.
The country, like Bush, is moderately conservative. Eight months is a long
time for Al Gore to pretend to be.
03/06/00: As the Clock Runs Out on Bradley