N.Y.’s Favorite Republicans

Photo: Joe Darrow

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.”

McCain now seems determined to pursue the path that Keene suggests he should have the first time around. Throughout our conversation, he invokes Reagan’s name repeatedly, along with the two issues that have served as the basis for the thaw between him and the right: his hawkish stance on the Iraq war and his crusade against federal spending. By letting McCain adopt a posture at once conservative and anti-Establishment, the latter is especially clever: “I’m just beside myself about this spending—I can’t tell you how awful it is,” he says. “I haven’t left the Republican Party; the party has abandoned the Republican principle of fiscal discipline.”

McCain has also been tacking rightward in less obvious—or at least less aggressively publicized—ways. He has thrown his support behind the teaching of “intelligent design” along with evolution in public schools. He has endorsed a constitutional amendment in Arizona to ban gay marriage and deny benefits to unmarried couples of any kind. He has met privately with Jerry Falwell, in an apparent attempt to gin up a rapprochement with the Christian right, which he famously and vividly attacked at the height of the 2000 campaign.

With gestures like this—and there will doubtless be many more to come—McCain risks tarnishing his image as a maverick, and alienating voters such as … well, you and me. But that may be the price he must pay for securing the nomination. “He’s trying to run from a much more mainstream Republican posture while maintaining a patina of independence,” says Keene. “He doesn’t need to make the right love him; he just needs to defang the right so it can’t hurt him. I think he’s in good shape—he’s definitely the front-runner.”

According to most polls, of course, that’s not exactly true: Giuliani runs slightly ahead of McCain consistently. And no one doubts that Giuliani’s popularity is real and sincerely felt. Yet among political professionals there is something approaching a consensus that of the two men, he occupies the far weaker position. To start with, McCain has run a national campaign before—a considerable asset. McCain can also lay claim to the “it’s my turn” mantle of seniority in the presidential sweepstakes—another important advantage in a party of primogeniture.

Worse for Giuliani, because he and McCain have the same set of strengths—heroism, national-security cred—and appeal to the same moderate and independent base of voters, it will make it devilishly difficult for Hizzoner to portray himself as a McCain alternative. As Keene puts it, “If McCain is the problem, Rudy isn’t the solution.”Even if McCain weren’t present in the race, Giuliani would have his share of obstacles to surmount. Unlike McCain, who can at least lay credible claim to being conservative on many social issues, Giuliani is something close to a bona fide social liberal: pro–gay rights, pro–gun control, thrice married, etc. Can some of these issues be fudged, rendering Giuliani modestly more palatable to the red-meat-eating right? Sure. But one of them cannot.

“It’s in Giuliani’s business interests to make people think he’s running. It helps with clients, it creates an aura, it contributes to your mojo.”

“It’s simply inconceivable that there would be a pro-choice nominee in today’s party,” says Wittman. “It’s too central a component in holding the entire Republican coalition together. Before he takes another step, Giuliani has to figure out how to deal with that. And I don’t see how he does it, other than changing his position—which raises its own set of issues altogether. It’s truly an impossible hurdle for him to get over.”

All of which leads Keene to a stark conclusion: “Rudy has to know that his best day will be the day he announces—it’ll be all downhill from there. And Rudy is no fool. So I frankly don’t believe that, in the end, he’ll run for president.”

Now, in New York, that opinion borders on heresy. Since Giuliani has broadly hinted that he intends to run again for public office, and since he declined to hurl himself at either the Senate or the governor’s mansion in 2006, that leaves only one option. “I have absolutely no doubt that he’s running,” says Fred Siegel, a former Giuliani adviser and author of the recently published biography The Prince of the City. “He’s enormously ambitious, enormously confident—oh, yeah, he’s going to be in.”

In Washington, though, a different perception is afoot. Says one longtime political-media guru, “McCain shows every sign of running and Giuliani shows no sign. McCain is out on a book tour, raising money for his pac, giving money away to other Republican candidates. What’s Rudy doing? Giving speeches, making money for himself. You can’t just sit there thinking, Hey, it would be fun to run; you have to be organizing right now, putting people in place.” Adds another campaign vet, “I know people in town who are signed up to work for every potential candidate on the list—Allen, Huckabee, Brownback, even Gingrich. But I don’t know a single soul who’s working on Giuliani’s campaign.”

For Giuliani, playing coy about his intentions—he has said he doesn’t intend to decide until sometime next year—makes a certain kind of sense. The pecuniary kind. “It’s in Giuliani’s business interests to make people think he’s running,” says the media guru. “It helps with clients, it creates an aura, it contributes to your mojo. If I’m him, I’d want everyone to think I was running right up until the filing date. There’s absolutely no downside to that at all.”

Siegel maintains that such Machiavellian imputations are wide of the mark. “Rudy’s campaign is following a different path—it’s a different model,” he says. “He’s not going the senatorial route, with the book tour and all that. He’s all over the country, giving speeches and doing business deals, meeting Bushie lawyers, Bushie businessmen, Bushie movers and shakers. He’s creating his own kind of national network.”

Maybe Siegel is right. Maybe Giuliani’s impulses toward messianism will propel him to run despite the odds, despite the lack of planning and organization, despite the warnings emanating from every corner of the party about the fate that awaits him if he does. But even if he doesn’t, Giuliani, along with McCain—whether he ultimately succeeds in winning the nomination—is essential to whatever the post-Bush GOP is destined to become. Charismatic, candid, and all too human, they create the impression, however illusory, that the Republican Party actually was a big tent and might, just might, be a big tent again.

Online Email: jheilemann@gmail.com

N.Y.’s Favorite Republicans