Missing McCain

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.

Dramatic though it was, the McCain staff shake-up is likely to have close to zero effect on any of these factors. So what happens now? It seems to me that there are two broad scenarios, neither of them pretty.

The first scenario is that McCain’s campaign collapses ignominiously before the end of the year. For all practical purposes, his operation today is broke, and with the stench of death now shrouding the endeavor, the reluctance of donors to whip out their checkbooks is certain to become even more acute. In a startling burst of candor, Warren Rudman, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire who serves as McCain’s national campaign co-chairman, raised this very specter last week. “If he doesn’t recover financially and in the polls by the fall, it will be very difficult for him to continue,” Rudman told the New Hampshire Union Leader. (When your campaign co-chair starts using the conditional when speaking of your survival, you know that you’re in deep caca.)

McCain’s early exit, naturally, would reshuffle the Republican deck. The most obvious beneficiary would be Giuliani: His social liberalism might appeal to moderates still wedded to McCain—and his increasing bellicosity on foreign policy (please note the recent addition of Norman Podhoretz to his roster of advisers) might attract those who venerate McCain’s militarism. Fred Thompson, too, assuming that he enters the race and adopts a hard-line posture on national security, might benefit similarly. And while Romney, whose gathering potency in Iowa and New Hampshire have arguably made him the new front-runner, might reap the fewest migrating voters, the extinction of the McCain opposition-research squad, which has sought relentlessly to poison Romney in the press, would surely be seen as a welcome development by Mr. Headroom.

The second scenario is that McCain survives until January through a combination of creative financing, bare-bones operations, and a root-and-branch strategic rethink. On the money side, the campaign has said it’s considering accepting federal matching funds for the primaries, which would immediately bring in $6 million and up to $21 million total. And rumors are circulating that the campaign intends to shift its focus to New Hampshire (the site of his upset of Bush in 2000) and South Carolina (with its large population of veterans), while forgoing Iowa, which McCain skipped last time around and where he’s currently weakest.

For McCain to have any prayer of resurrection will require more than this sort of retooling, however. It will require him to resuscitate his previous image—and for voters to buy it. “Maybe he goes back to the tiniest New Hampshire high-school gym he visited in 1999,” posits Schnur. “One of McCain’s greatest strengths is his willingness to admit mistakes. He may be the best apologizer in American politics. So he acknowledges the obvious. He says, ‘I’ve been trying to be somebody I’m not. Now I’m starting over.’ ”

The troubles with this scenario are many and glaring. If McCain does accept public money, his campaign will be bound by state-by-state spending restrictions—many of which are so tight that they would put him at a daunting disadvantage. (The limit for New Hampshire would be a mere $818,000.) Skipping Iowa would increase the chances of a Romney victory there, which would in turn make him all the more formidable in New Hampshire. Then there’s the matter of whether McCain’s new campaign chief is cut out to run a guerrilla operation. In 2000, Weaver often railed about the bureaucratization and sclerosis endemic to McCain headquarters. He dubbed the place “the Pentagon”—and Davis was its SecDef. “Rick is good at many things,” says a Republican strategist who knows him well, “but insurgencies are not among them.”

Even on the most optimistic reading, what this scenario envisions, in essence, is McCain as the Republican John Edwards: a candidate placing all of his chips on a single state (in McCain’s case, New Hampshire; in Edwards’s, Iowa) and hoping that a victory there will create sufficient momentum to carry him through the others. If you’re in the mood to be Panglossian, you might observe that although being the Republican Edwards plainly is not ideal, it’s conceivably better than being the new Bob Dole—the role that McCain seemed destined to play had he maintained his front-running status.

For more than a few Republicans, no doubt, the fall of McCain is a cause for rejoicing. But I wonder if they’ll feel that way when all is said and done. McCain’s flaws are real enough, but no one can dispute that he’s a serious man, with serious ideas, who would have seriously changed the GOP, a party in a serious state of crisis. Nothing similar can remotely be said of what remains of the Republican top tier. McCain’s marginalization leaves them all floating, weightless, barely tethered to reality, short of ideas and gravitas, let alone convictions. I suspect that they will miss him more and sooner than they now know.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Missing McCain