Successful presidential campaigns follow a two-part strategy. For Republicans, Richard Nixon described it as running to the right in the primaries and running back to the center in the general election. For Democrats, the idea is to go to the left in the primaries, then to the center. This is much trickier than it sounds, involving tense choices of which policies to embrace on the right or the left and, later, which policies to ride back to the middle. One of the gravest mistakes of presidential campaigning is to adopt a general-election strategy too soon, something front-runners find tempting. Al Gore did it just long enough for Bill Bradley to get traction last summer, then snapped out of it. George W. Bush did it until New Hampshire snapped him out of it. That high-powered campaigns can make such seemingly simple tactical errors is testimony to how complex presidential-campaign strategizing actually is. Which makes John McCain’s campaign nothing less than a political miracle.
Without adjusting his positions one way or the other, McCain is running a successful primary campaign and general-election campaign at the same time. And he is beating everyone in sight: Bush, Gore, Bradley, the Reform Party, and, while he’s at it, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and the Republican Congress.
The day after McCain’s New Hampshire landslide, he went from twenty points down in South Carolina to snatching the lead away from Bush. In pre-election polling, momentum is more important than position, and in primary polling, national numbers are useless. You can ignore the national polls that still show a Bush lead. The state-by-state polls show McCain cutting Bush’s lead where he has to – New York and California – with plenty of time to close the gaps by the March 7 election in both states. That’s why the Bush campaign had to shut down operations that first weekend after New Hampshire just to stop and think What the hell do we do now? Answer: Bush’s new campaign slogan, “The reformer who gets results.”
The McCain campaign did not feel compelled to change a thing that first weekend after New Hampshire. The candidate went to California, where he charmed Jay Leno’s audience and wowed the state’s Republican convention. Meanwhile, back at headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, you could not tell what time it was – everyone was working at 8 p.m. exactly as hard as at 8 a.m.
McCain is trouncing Bradley with independents and stealing press attention from him at the same time. McCain is, for the moment, almost as important to the Gore campaign as Gore is. But McCain is also Gore’s worst nightmare in the general election. Not only is he ahead of Gore in national polls now, but he’s promising to “beat Al Gore like a drum” on the Clinton-Gore fund-raising scandals.
McCain is singularly masterly in dragging Bill Clinton into the campaign. In speeches, he begins paragraphs that seem to be positive arguments for his legislative agenda – campaign-finance reform – and ends them by ripping into “the truth-twisting politics of Bill Clinton and Al Gore,” a phrase that evokes everything from Gore’s fund-raising in a Buddhist temple to Monica Lewinsky’s delivering pizza to the Oval Office.
McCain is the only candidate left in the race who voted to remove Bill Clinton from office, a vote against the position held by a clear majority of Americans. Democrats believed then that Republicans voting for impeachment might help them win back the Senate. No one does now. And McCain has certainly paid no price for it. Republican-primary voters heartily approve of the impeachment vote, and independents who did not like it then don’t care about it now. But that’s nothing compared with what some Democrats are prepared to ignore as they gravitate toward McCain.
With general agreement on the budget, the need for some kind of tax cut, the death penalty, welfare, international trade, and foreign policy, no issue separates Republicans and Democrats more sharply than abortion. But some pro-choice Democrats find themselves attracted to McCain despite his unyielding pro-life stance. They seem to think that McCain, like presidents Reagan and Bush, would continue to talk tough on abortion but would not try to tamper with Roe v. Wade. They’re betting on Supreme Court appointments more like Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter than like Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. When you start hearing Upper West Side liberals and Hollywood liberals talk about voting for McCain, pay attention: These are people who swore they would never vote for anyone who was pro-life or anyone who voted to impeach Clinton, and now they are ready to do just that. A Hollywood mogul who has never voted for a Republican for anything told me last week, “You gotta love McCain. He just says whatever he thinks.” That, of course, is not true: When McCain promises to cut all pork out of the federal budget, he knows that as president, he won’t do that. He knows he will trade pork deals for votes in the House and Senate and to win re-election votes for himself in important states.
The last presidential candidate who picked up a big head of steam in the polls simply by appearing to say whatever he thought was Reform Party founder Ross Perot. McCain’s reform mantra and his “straight talk” image are what Reform Party voters crave. In the general election, McCain would make voting for the Reform candidate less attractive than ever. And with Pat Buchanan as the Reform nominee, McCain would continue to look ever more reasonable to independents and Democrats. A McCain nomination could make the Reform Party all but disappear this time around.
Already, candidate McCain is exerting far more legislative influence than he ever has as a congressman or senator. The Republican Congress is watching its big tax cuts evaporate, and all because of this colleague whom they have customarily regarded as ineffectual. Senator McCain has gained fame as a champion of lost causes – campaign-finance reform, tobacco-tax increases – which is not the route to respect in the Senate. Even in his power position as chairman of the Commerce Committee, McCain has shown more weakness than strength. As McCain persuades Republican-primary voters to reject the big tax-cutter, Bush, in favor of the little tax-cutter, himself, he will do more to shape this year’s tax-cut legislation than anything he does on the Senate floor will.
The Republican Congress, with a majority supporting Bush, is more vexed by McCain’s success than angered by it. They are political professionals, after all: If McCain continues to gain altitude, Bush’s supporters in Congress will begin to think how useful all that Bush money would be for a Bush vice-presidential campaign and how McCain’s coattails could help them keep control of the House and maybe pick up a Senate seat in, say, New York. Hillary Clinton has almost as much at stake in the New York primary as the presidential candidates. A McCain victory would mean that New York voters are not averse to being reminded continually of the sins of Bill Clinton. Refreshing the voters’ disgust with the president’s indiscretions cannot help the First Lady’s campaign.
Bush has only three weeks left to find the formula to stop McCain. If Bush fails, then it will be up to the Democratic nominee, probably Gore, who will have little choice but to turn the general election into a plebiscite on abortion rights. Then we will find out who really loves John McCain.