John McCain and I begin our chat with a point on which, we adamantly agree, there can be no sensible disagreement: It’s insanely early to be talking about the 2008 presidential campaign. “Honestly,” says McCain, as he pops a piece of hard candy in his mouth and chomps it to pieces, “I doubt that one out of 20,000 Americans is thinking about the 2008 election today. The poll numbers that are coming out right now are completely ephemeral.”
Ephemeral or not, the numbers McCain is talking about are tantalizing, brimming with portent. For they show that he and Rudy Giuliani, his friend and fellow Republican maverick-cum-apostate, have emerged as the front-runners for the GOP nomination. Indeed, in poll after poll—from serious surveys conducted by reputable outfits to online straw votes run by wack-job Websites—McCain and Giuliani are the party’s only putative candidates with support in double digits. (Fascinatingly, the sole exception, when her name is included, is Condoleezza Rice.)
The standard line in Washington is that McCain’s and Giuliani’s popularity is a function of their prominence. They are, after all, among the most glittering celebrities in the political stratosphere. McCain has just published his fourth best-selling book, Character Is Destiny, and is touring the country, speaking to packed, rapt houses. And Giuliani’s speechifying is in demand around the world, where he’s showered with adulation (not to mention unfathomable fees). Given this skin-blanching level of exposure, it’s not surprising that McCain and Giuliani are polling well. “It’s 95 percent name I.D.,” McCain tells me. “It’s ‘I know who John McCain is, I know who Rudy Giuliani is, but I’ve never heard of Mitt Romney or Sam Brownback.’ ”
But the emergence of McCain and Giuliani as front-runners is about more than numbers, name recognition, or wanton starfucking. It’s about a surge of receptiveness to both of them on the diamond-hard right and in the Republican Establishment. It’s about the denizens of Bushworld whispering that they’re now copacetic with McCain: “As soon as he stood up and saluted the ticket a year ago, the fences were mended,” one Bushie tells me. It’s about Pat Robertson declaring, earlier this year, that Giuliani would “make a good president.” It’s about a new appetite for qualities—competence, worldliness, toughness as opposed to bluster, the ability to articulate as well as enact an activist war on terror—that McCain and Giuliani possess in spades but George W. Bush does not. It’s also about cold-eyed calculation: about polling that shows either Giuliani or McCain beating Hillary Clinton in a head-on matchup.
Lurking behind all this, I think, is a sense of gathering panic among the party’s leaders as well as its rank and file, who suddenly see the GOP’s long-labored-for majority as teetering, vulnerable. As Marshall Wittman, a former staffer to both McCain and the Christian Coalition, explains it, “There’s a growing recognition among conservatives that the era of base politics that we’ve just been through has run its course, and that they need a leader with a broader appeal if they want to win in the future—and they definitely want to win!”
Nowhere is that desire so evident as in the canoodling between the Republican Establishment and McCain. I caught up with him in Cambridge, where he was speaking as part of his book tour at the First Parish Church in Harvard Square. Outside, a small (three-person) protest contingent hurled invective that defied parody: “There’s no such thing as a war hero!” a less charming incarnation of Cindy Sheehan bleated over and over. But inside the church, McCain presided over a veritable love-in, as several hundred kids swooned for his stories and cackled over his canned jokes. “You’re the only member of the GOP I can listen to without having a seizure,” one obviously liberal, French-Algerian student announced during the Q&A.
Afterward, I told McCain that the infatuation with him by countless liberals—barely a day goes by in New York without some habitual Democrat telling me he would consider voting for McCain against Clinton—struck me as hard to fathom.
McCain, without missing a beat, replied, “They don’t know me well enough.”
We both laughed at that, but he wasn’t entirely kidding, for McCain has always been more conservative than either the left or the right wishes to admit. A recent piece in The Nation captured the point concisely: “In 2004 he earned a perfect 100 percent rating from Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and a 0 percent from NARAL. . . . He has supported school vouchers, a missile defense shield, and private accounts for Social Security. Well before 9/11 McCain advocated a new Reagan doctrine of ‘rogue-state rollback.’”
So what accounts for the deep suspicion of McCain on the right? Certainly the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law, which conservatives saw as a violation of the First Amendment, is part of the story. And certainly his liberal positions on immigration and climate change are part of it, too. But, at bottom, the conservative wariness of McCain has less to do with his stances on particular issues than with a more fundamental sense of betrayal. “Before 2000, McCain was a pretty reliable conservative,” says David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union. “In fact, he could have run in that election as the Reaganite challenger to Bush. But instead he wanted to be the truth-telling iconoclast. He decided the media was his constituency, not conservatives, and he ran by attacking his own party. A lot of people decided then he couldn’t be trusted.”