Another election night, another frontrunner on the floor. This time it was John McCain's turn, following up his big win in New Hampshire with a defeat at the hands of Mitt Romney, who is—and someone ought to acknowledge this—the only candidate to finish either first or second in every Republican primary and caucus held to date. That record will likely end this Saturday in South Carolina, but Romney's success could still propel him to a strong finish in Nevada, which holds its caucus on the same day (and which is, despite its libertine reputation, a state with a substantial Mormon population).
The McCain camp is, as expected, pulling out all the rhetorical stops, particularly emphasizing Romney's status as a native son, born in Detroit, whose father served three terms as Michigan's governor. The last of these terms, however, expired some forty years ago, and nobody under the age of 62 has ever encountered a ballot with George Romney's name on it. Further, nothing forced McCain to contest the Michigan primary; the fact that he did belies the notion that he considered the race Romney's to lose. Simply put, John McCain took precious time out of his schedule to travel to the Wolverine State and deliver the knockout blow to Mitt Romney's candidacy. And he failed.
At this point, only a fool or Chris Matthews (but I repeat myself) would dare to claim knowledge of what will happen next. One could certainly make the argument that McCain, despite his setback in Michigan, remains the GOP frontrunner. But three things happened this week, none of which bode well for the Arizona senator's final opportunity to win the presidency.
First, as all the post-primary commentators have pointed out, McCain does not poll especially well among Republicans. His victory in New Hampshire relied on independent and even some Democratic voters choosing GOP ballots. In Michigan, turnout among Democrats and independents was down, putting the decision squarely in the hands of the Republican base, which again rejected John McCain. (One of the silliest explanations that I heard on television was that independents may have been discouraged from voting by six inches of snow on the ground. In Michigan. In January. Is there no end to the media's willingness to shill for McCain?)
Second, the conductor of the Straight Talk Express owed much of his defeat last night to…his straight talk. In a state reeling from years of layoffs in the all-important automotive industry, Senator McCain eschewed the opportunity to engage in the usual political happy talk about how Ford and GM will rise again under his leadership. Instead, he told Michiganders an unpleasant truth: the age of U.S. dominance among automakers was likely over and that the people of Detroit and environs will need to retool. McCain was rewarded for this honesty by a crushing loss to a man who broke out the pompoms early and often, promising that his administration would bring Michigan all the way back. That Romney didn't explain how this would occur seemed not to matter to a state still unwilling to accept that their best days may already have passed.
Finally, behind the scenes and out of view of most Americans, the titans of right-wing talk radio have redoubled their campaign against John McCain. Once in a while, I will tune in to whichever reactionary blabbermouth happens to be polluting the skies at the moment. This past week, I caught small segments of both Glenn Beck's and Rush Limbaugh's noxious programs. As though reading from an identical script, the two mossback gasbags assailed the notion that the Arizona lawmaker was any kind of true conservative. While granting reluctant credit to McCain for his position in favor of the Iraq Surge, the hosts each spoke at length about the senator's occasional alliances with Democrats on key bills. McCain-Feingold (campaign finance reform) stifles free speech! McCain-Kennedy (immigration reform) gives amnesty to illegal "aliens"! McCain-Satan outlaws all churches and synagogues! I suppose I made the last one up, but even a few minutes with Limbaugh and Beck tend to drive one's mind into paranoid hyperdrive.
Where does this leave our fallen frontrunner? He apparently still cannot close the deal with members of his own party, his straight talk (such as it is) clashes with the usual expectations that politicians will feed voters pleasant pablum, and the radio rabble rousers continue to undermine his candidacy on a regular basis. And now the campaign goes south where McCain must face millions of Christian conservatives who have never particularly warmed to him.
In any kind of halfway decent GOP presidential field, John McCain would have been dismissed by the electorate weeks ago. His closest Democratic analog, Joe Biden, barely made a dent in his own party's clash of superstars. But in this crop of weaklings, fanatics, and knaves, anything remains possible. When all else fails, McCain can always return to his appealing back story, a luxury none of the other candidates (except, perhaps, Rudy Giuliani) has.
So where do we go from here? At some point, the Republicans will have to settle on a nominee. Ronald Reagan is not coming back. Newt Gingrich would love to, of course, but he can see Hillary Clinton's negatives and raise her ten points. Bringing divorce papers to your cancer-stricken wife's bedside pretty much leaves you on the losing side of any debate over character. There is simply no white knight on the horizon who would bring anything additional to the table. (Sorry, Jeb, but your older brother has put the Bush name out of play for at least a generation.) Dan Quayle, anyone?
As for the remaining GOP candidates, Mike Huckabee probably emerged as the biggest loser yesterday. Not only did he finish third in Michigan, he also appeared on tape telling an audience that he supports changing the Constitution to bring it into line with the Bible. This may provide him with a split decision in South Carolina, but it effectively ends his bid to be a nationally viable candidate. Theocrats have their place in American politics, but that place is not the Oval Office.
Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani are currently nursing one-state strategies. Should Fred finish out of the money in South Carolina, his slumbering campaign will at last be put out of its misery. Without a Giuliani win in Florida, Rudy will be reduced to think tank Hell or some post as Adjunct Professor of Authoritarianism at NYU. But even if either candidate wins his prize, there is no reason to believe that his path to nomination will be much clearer. The reason that Thompson and Giuliani have retreated to the South in the first place is because they were unable to generate a bit of traction in the states that came before. Between Rudy's sleaze and Fred's somnolence, neither seems an especially appealing Republican standard bearer against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
If I had to bet, I'd say it's going to be either McCain or Romney at the finish line. But I don't have to bet, and I am fully prepared to be wrong. Once in a while, a party goes off the deep end of temporary self-destruction (Goldwater, McGovern). Maybe this will be the Republicans' year.