Wednesday, January 23, 2008

2004 Redux?

To listen to the cable TV pundits, you would think that John McCain's comeback from several months of electoral oblivion represents the greatest turnaround in American political history. In fact, this sort of thing happens all the time. Immediately, of course, we think of Harry Truman and his defeat of Thomas Dewey in 1948, an upset memorialized in that famously mistaken Chicago Tribune headline ("Dewey Defeats Truman") from the morning after his victory.

In fact, McCain's accomplishment comes nowhere close to rivaling that of Truman, a man who held the underdog label from the start of the campaign until the very last vote was counted. McCain, by contrast, actually enjoyed frontrunner status during the early months of 2007. In that sense, his return from the dead most closely parallels the fate of John Kerry four years ago.

Like McCain, Kerry was the clubhouse leader whose inaugural voyage into presidential waters went poorly. His early campaign was so unimpressive that, by December of 2003, Kerry even trailed Al Sharpton in at least one of the horserace polls. Dissatisfied Democrats sampled a variety of alternatives including Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman. As the calendar turned to 2004, they had seemingly settled on Howard Dean, the previously unknown former governor of Vermont. Ultimately, however, Democratic voters rejected the frenetic Dean as unelectable, flirted briefly with John Edwards, then returned, finally and reluctantly, to their previous frontrunner. Rather than capturing the hearts and minds of his fellow Democrats, Kerry became the party's standard bearer almost by process of elimination.

It is risky to draw analogies between different years and different parties, but it is also, in this case, irresistible. If McCain is Kerry, then Dean's role is filled by Mike Huckabee, the candidate who inspires the grassroots true believers, but whose fervor and unpredictability worry the party bosses, who care only about winning elections. The part of Edwards can be played by Mitt Romney, the unnaturally attractive but untested newcomer (yeah, I know, this one is kind of a stretch; Edwards never had to reboot his entire ideological hard drive). Rudy Giuliani is Joe Lierberman, the virulent warhawk admired by the media, but wholly unappealing to the electorate. Finally, Fred Thompson can serve as this year's Wes Clark, the supposed "X" factor who was expected to stir up the race in unexpected ways, but ended up making barely a ripple.

OK, this is fun, but the comparisons are obviously imperfect. For one thing, I really have nobody to fill in for Dick Gerphardt, the veteran warhorse back for his last hurrah. I guess if Dan Quayle or Steve Forbes had chosen to take one more dip into the pool, our set would be complete, but no such luck. Anyhow, my point is not simply that the 2008 GOP race resembles the 2004 march of the Dems. Rather, it is to demonstrate that McCain's Lazarus act is fairly ordinary, having just occurred four winters ago.

But more than that, I think there may be a cautionary note here for the Republican Party. After Democrats swallowed hard, abandoned their December crushes, and handed their nomination to Senator Kerry, they painfully relearned precisely why they had rejected him in the first place. We'll never know for certain whether Kerry truly was more electable than Howard Dean or John Edwards, but we do know that he was not elected and that his campaign was often listless and phlegmatic. Say what you want about Dean, but when the Swift Board Liars came a-callin', the Great Screamer would have called them out with a vengeance. Kerry, on the other hand, responded cautiously, in a careful and timid manner that actually lent credence to their vile slander.

Indeed, this sort of gratuitous caution, this unwillingness to risk any betrayal of honest passion was, in fact, one of the reasons that the Democratic electorate had strayed from Kerry to begin with. Not only did they see their opponent, George W. Bush, as the leader of a failed and megalomaniacal administration, but they also understood from their 2000 experience that there was no depth to which the Republicans would not sink to maintain their grip on power. They desperately searched for a champion, a warrior, before eventually settling for a man whose wartime heroism, they assumed, would compensate for his rhetorical weaknesses. In the end, of course, undecided voters found Kerry every bit as unappealing as his fellow Democrats did the previous year.

John McCain, like Kerry, has a remarkable and heroic back story, McCain's being even better than Kerry's. Nevertheless, GOP voters spent most of 2007 searching for an alternative to their leading candidate. They generally liked McCain, but they viewed him as an ineffective campaigner. The straight-shooting reputation that he had built up so carefully back in 2000 had instead given way to that of yet another guarded politician, eager to please and unwilling to offend. Further, they worried that McCain had turned from maverick to reflexive compromiser, always aiming for the path of least resistance in dealing with the Democrats. More than anything else, though, they worried that the senator would no be up for the rough and tumble of a general election campaign. When Chuck Norris blurted out the other day that McCain was too old to serve, he was only giving voice to what numerous Republican had long whispered behind closed doors.

Make no mistake: GOP disenchantment with John McCain also had a lot to do with his stands of various hot-button issues. Anti-immigration extremists have not forgiven him for his comprehensive approach to the issue. Interest groups and their supporters remain rankled by the senator's commitment to campaign finance reform. Low tax crusaders question his fealty to their agenda. Still, the initial rejection of McCain's candidacy exposed some very significant weaknesses in the Arizonan's ability to connect with and inspire voters. These weaknesses have not disappeared.

We do not know yet whether John McCain will be the Republican nominee for president. He still must cast aside Romney and Giuliani on his way to the GOP's Minneapolis convention. But like Kerry in 2004, Republicans may find that many of the same weaknesses that cooled their own ardor for their war-hero candidate may also turn off independents and weak partisans in November. The Iraq War, supposedly the senator's strongest issue, may not be enough to save his candidacy. If the Surge continues to "succeed", the war will increasingly recede as a salient issue. If casualties again begin to mount, McCain will be doubly vulnerable.

Sometimes, as the Democrats discovered four years ago, the safe choice isn't always so safe after all.

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