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Missing McCain

His campaign operation is in meltdown, his poll numbers are anemic, no one thinks he can win. But is the GOP lost without him?

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Illustration by Darrow  

The speed and severity of the unraveling of John McCain’s bid for the presidency is nearly impossible to capture—but let me offer one small anecdote that’s as revealing in retrospect as it is darkly ironic.

Just four months ago, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard hosted an intimate gathering of operatives from the campaigns of McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney. Despite Giuliani’s lead in national polls, the consensus around the table was that McCain was the race’s front-runner. His lead in endorsements was noted, as was the strength of his organization and the size of his retinue. (“There’s a few people here we haven’t hired yet,” joked the McCain campaign’s chief executive, Rick Davis.) At the end of the session, moderator Mark Halperin, then the political director of ABC News and now at Time, posed a final question to the assembled adjutants, turning first to Davis: “Will the senior campaign team that is currently in place for Senator McCain be in place in December, yes or no?” To which Davis replied, provoking much hilarity, “It will only get bigger.”

The temptation here is to describe the peals that attended Davis’s self-mockery as prescient, knowing. But the truth is that no one in that room would ever have predicted the staggering meltdown—the anemic fund-raising, which has left McCain’s campaign with fewer dollars on hand than Republican no-hoper Ron Paul has, requiring a radical downsizing of McCain’s organization; the decline in his poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire, which has left him trailing not only Romney and Giuliani but often ghost candidate Fred Thompson; and now the immolation of his brain trust, which has left him without the counsel of his master strategist, John Weaver—that McCain has suffered since then.

It would be pleasingly counterintuitive to declare that McCain, at this, his lowest moment, is now poised for a miraculous recovery. Indeed, I’ve been itching to write exactly that all through his recent free fall. But, alas, the contrarian impulse has its limits. Though it’s not impossible to conjure a narrative in which McCain wins the nomination, doing so requires half a bottle of Maker’s Mark, followed by a nitrous-oxide chaser. A more sober assessment of his predicament suggests the Straight Talk Express may be up on blocks before 2008 arrives—and that, in turn, raises a blunt question for a man who prizes bluntness above all: Why not walk away right now and avoid further humiliation?

It’s difficult to imagine a more embarrassing week, of course, than the one he’s just endured. A week, that is, in which his campaign was revealed for what it had become: an acrimonious clusterfuck. Here you had a campaign manager, Terry Nelson, the political director for Bush-Cheney 2004, as impervious to the concept of fiscal discipline as his former boss, the president. (“An organization in Alabama?” a Republican strategist marvels. “That’s not the Bush-Cheney campaign; it’s a parody of the Bush-Cheney campaign.”) Here you had Davis, whose fund-raising forecast of $120 million for 2007 was vastly higher than any Republican, let alone McCain, has any hope of achieving. And here you had Weaver, who’d worked with Davis in 2000 and despised him so intensely that when Davis was bequeathed the forced-out Nelson’s job, Weaver preferred to abandon his longtime patron rather than carry on.

Operational infighting and disarray are nothing new in presidential machines, particularly when a would-be juggernaut morphs into a sputtering jalopy. “The staffing and budget issues are just symptoms,” Dan Schnur, McCain’s communications savant in 2000, tells me. “This is what happens when you try to run an Establishment campaign with a non-Establishment candidate. The decision to go that route was understandable, defensible. It’s traditionally how you win the Republican nomination. But it was never going to work for McCain, because it isn’t who he is.”

Needless to say, as wretched as McCain’s organization has been, the core of his electoral problems revolve precisely around who he is. His ardent support for George W. Bush’s troop surge into Iraq, and his hawkishness on the war in general, have cost him the affection of the moderate Republicans and independent voters who flocked to him in 2000. (They have also turned the media—which in sunnier times McCain referred to as “my base”—against him.) His liberal position on immigration has served as a reminder to hard-line conservatives that he isn’t one of them, crippling his efforts to prove otherwise with, for example, his nauseating courtship of the religious right (which wasn’t working anyway). Perhaps because of all this, the McCain on display in 2007 has been a grim shadow of his former self: sour, cranky, uninspiring, lifeless, and uncomfortable in his skin.


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