McCain, of course, suffered a similarly stinging defeat in 2000 at the hands of George W. Bush. Back then, McCain returned to the Senate and behaved almost like a liberal, going on the attack against Bush and other Republicans. That his reaction to being whipped by Obama is to lurch in the opposite direction—toward reflexive, rock-ribbed conservatism—might seem strange at first. But the truth is that McCain’s ideological moorings have always been less distinct or meaningful than his sense of his own virtue. In both 2000 and 2008, he was beaten by men he considered his inferiors on every level that matters to him: honor, guts, and the sacrifices endured for their country. For McCain, opposing the lesser figures who bested him in combat seems to come as naturally as breathing.
But McCain also has other, more pedestrian but no less pertinent reasons for acting the way that he has. Back home in Arizona, for the first time in years, McCain is facing the prospect of a serious primary challenge from archconservative former congressman J. D. Hayworth. How serious? According to a Rasmussen Reports poll conducted last month, McCain holds a narrow lead over Hayworth, 45 to 43 percent, in a hypothetical matchup.
Though Hayworth has yet to declare his candidacy, he has made no bones about his leaning in that direction. And given the drift of the GOP right now, the smart betting is that he will join a virtual conga line of grassroots challengers to entrenched party incumbents in next year’s midterm races.
Which brings us to the larger dimensions of the matter at hand. Certainly among the most salient and least predicted features of Obama’s first year in office has been that, John McCain notwithstanding, the faces and the voices of Republican opposition have not been those of elected officials. Instead, to a very large degree, the party’s image has been defined by three individuals: Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin. No doubt these figures have energized the GOP’s base in a way that few could have imagined. But equally clear is that they’ve done zilch to broaden the party’s appeal or help it escape the demographic ditch—the party of the old, the white, the male, and the southern—into which it’s fallen.
Among the leaders of mainstream Republicanism, no one would seem to have been better suited to challenge the influence of the party’s extreme elements than McCain. But when Cheney slams Obama as a ditherer for taking his time before sending tens of thousands of soldiers into harm’s way, McCain sagely nods his head. When Palin invokes death panels, McCain joins in the fun—and then praises the work of delusional fantasy that is her memoir. As for Limbaugh, the man who once extended his “apologies to Bozo, Chuckles, and Krusty” after calling the talk-radio gasbag a clown now declares, “Mr. Limbaugh is a voice of a significant portion of our conservative movement in America … He’s part of the political landscape, and he plays a role.”
McCain’s accommodationism of the GOP’s lunatic fringe is the clearest evidence that chief among the factors motivating him this year has been fear: fear that the passions now raging on the right might well consume him. On one level, this fear—which is widely shared among sensible Republicans in every corner of the land—is natural. On another, it’s deeply depressing. But most of all, it is self-defeating. “We will only be successful again as a national party when we do what the Tories have done in Britain,” says a leading Republican campaign strategist. “McCain could help lead the party in that direction or at least give air cover to those who want to go that route. But he’s not doing it.”
For Obama, the absence of that kind of leadership on the Republican side has been among the greatest blessings in an otherwise trying year. The wild fulminations on the GOP’s right flank have caused the president no end of headaches. But they are nothing compared to the migraines he’d be suffering if a few courageous Republicans stood up to the Cheney-Limbaugh-Palin caucus and began to revive the party as a serious force with broad electoral appeal. Though it would never occur to Obama, he should send McCain a thank-you note. Not for the first time, he owes him much—and McCain has earned it.