The question is whether McCain’s maverick persona, which is deeply rooted in his renegade run in the primaries eight years ago, will hold up under scrutiny. For as it should be clear to anyone paying even cursory attention, McCain 2000 and McCain 2008 are very different mammals—as evinced by his toadying to Jerry Falwell, his flip-floppy embrace of Bush’s tax cuts, and his failure to offer any kind of substantial reform agenda this time around.
Then there’s the fact that many people at the highest levels of McCain’s campaign are lobbyists or the employees of lobbying firms. The list has included Schmidt, campaign manager Rick Davis, and one of his top strategists, the longtime K Street kingpin Charlie Black. Until recently, in fact, Black was being paid by his lobbying shop while he “volunteered” for McCain; his decision to step down from the chairmanship of his firm a couple of weeks ago—a development akin to Eliot Spitzer taking a vow of chastity—was designed to preempt criticism surrounding conflict of interest.
Even some Republican stalwarts are appalled at McCain’s coziness with the influence-peddling industry. “Can you imagine a bunch of people working for Halliburton trying to elect Cheney?” says a prominent GOP consultant. “How can that be legal? Even if it is legal, it’s never happened before. And it says a lot about what McCain has become. In 2000, he was the candidate of reform, of anger, of screw the system. Now he’s the candidate of lobbyists, endorsements, and special deals with Beltway banks.”
So if McCain is no longer the bracing iconoclast he was in 2000, who the hell is he?
“I’ll tell you,” this person says. “He’s morphed into Bob Dole.”
This was not my first encounter with the McCain-is-Dole meme. I had first run across it back in January, on the night of the final Republican debate, in Simi Valley, California, when McCain’s crabbiness and sarcasm onstage had prompted a former GOP player now tilling the corporate field to make the comparison over dinner. As it turned out, the idea was also being promulgated sub rosa by a number of Mitt Romney’s senior strategists. A few days later, on the morning of Super Duper Tuesday, it popped out of Mitt’s own mouth. “There are a lot of folks that tend to think maybe John McCain’s race is a bit like Bob Dole’s race,” Romney snarked on Fox News. “That it’s the guy who’s the next in line; he’s the inevitable choice and we’ll give it to him, and then it won’t work.”
Not surprisingly, McCain’s people push back hard on the suggestion that their guy might be Dole Redux. “I think that in many ways he’s very un-Dole-like,” retorts McKinnon. “He actually has really good strategic sense. He’s a very disciplined candidate in terms of delivering a message. And Dole restrained those things that people liked best about him. There’s a great side of Dole that we never saw. We’ll always see that with McCain.”
Certainly it’s true that Dole kept his sense of humor—dark, ironic, acutely subversive—largely under wraps when he was the Republican nominee in 1996. It’s also true that McCain makes no effort to suppress his comic sensibilities, which are not only similar to Dole’s but also to those of David Letterman, with whom he shares an affinity. Like Letterman and Dole, McCain is constantly offering a running sidelong commentary about himself and what he is doing, in the process winking, letting everyone know that, deep down, he considers it a bit of a sham. In New Hampshire, McCain routinely ended appearances on the stump by invoking Richard Daley’s timeless dictum “Vote early and vote often.” What other presidential candidate in history has ever left his audiences not with an applause line or a rousing crescendo but a cynical joke about politics?
As Neal Gabler argued recently in the Times, this is no small part of why McCain is popular with the press: He is the meta-candidate—and journalists have never met a meta they didn’t like. The question, however, is whether it’s the ideal approach to claiming the hearts of voters. Though Letterman is popular, Leno always thumps him in the ratings, after all. On the other hand, McCain’s propensities in this regard may be the best counterweight against his increasingly geriatric bearing. “It’s one of the few future-oriented things about him,” says Alex Castellanos. “He’s got that postmodern detachment and intolerance of bullshit that will keep you young forever.”
But few of the other likenesses between McCain and Dole can be spun so benignly. There’s the septuagenarian-ness (McCain is 71; Dole was 72 when he ran). There’s the physical frailty, courageously earned in war, that nevertheless serves as a constant reminder of his advanced years. There’s the legendary shortness of his fuse. (McCain has yet to have a full-on “Stop lying about my record” moment on the trail, but his testiness was on display the other day in a widely YouTubed confrontation on his campaign jet with the Times’s Elisabeth Bumiller.) There’s the firm conviction, as Time journalist Mark Halperin has noted, that “being on Meet the Press is more important than going to church—actually, that being on Meet the Press is going to church.”