What are we to make of John McCain’s victory in Michigan and his dramatic surge in the Republican primaries? As a George W. Bush supporter, I am not happy that my candidate, who is in my opinion the best man to lead the Republican Party and the nation, has been pushed to the right, and is now facing a battle for his political survival.
As a Republican, however, I could hardly be more excited.
My reaction is not yet typical of Republicans, however. Friday, for example, I spoke to a Republican congressman who told me he was terrified by the “discipline” of the Democrats who voted for McCain in Michigan even though (he believes) they will vote for a Democrat in November.
And Thursday, I was on a local television panel here with Democrats who were happy about the McCain challenge because Republicans were at each other’s throats and thus spending their political war chests.
So why am I happy? Well, to begin with, forget the money problem. As McCain himself has shown in this primary season, the conventional wisdom about political money is wrong. McCain started out with a tiny war chest, a cash reserve only a sixth that of Bush’s. But, now, as the result of a campaign that has had little to do with his ability to buy political ads, McCain is almost financially even with Bush. If the eventual Republican nominee can maintain the enthusiasm of his primary constituencies, there will be no money problem.
Forget also the fear of Democratic Party discipline. I’m sure there were a few union apparatchiks who did march to the polls on orders. But that is not the real story of what is happening here. What is happening here is the “Jesse Ventura phenomenon,” nothing short of a political earthquake. The difference is that this earthquake is not happening inside a third party, as pundits predicted, but inside the GOP.
What is the cause of this earthquake? Former Democratic advisor Pat Caddell, who was on the television panel with me Thursday, described it as a “vomit-up Clinton” mood among the American electorate. There is also a “fed-up with the system” mood out there. That’s why the story of a war hero who risked his life for his country and who is willing to challenge his party orthodoxy has made McCain — even in the absence of significant money reserves — a very serious contender.
But that was also why Jesse Ventura, another straight-talking, unorthodox and irreverent hero of the popular culture, could blow out two seasoned politicians in Minnesota to win the governor’s race. The salient fact of the Ventura phenomenon is this: While only 35 percent of the electorate turned out for both parties nationwide, 65 percent of Minnesota’s voters cast their ballots on Election Day. Ventura registered more Reform Party voters in the final week of his campaign (19 percent) than either Democrats or Republicans were able to register (17 percent and 18 percent) over the course of the entire campaign.
A similar explosion of voter enthusiasm for McCain is what has made this year’s primaries more exciting than the Super Bowl.
In Michigan more than a million voters turned out to choose a Republican nominee. That is three times the Republican turnout for the presidential primary four years ago. And that is why I am a happy camper. If the same energy flows to the Republican candidate in November, Republicans will win both the White House and the House easily.
But not so fast, counter my Democratic friends. Here’s the rub. Already many Republicans are calling McCain’s candidacy a Democratic plot. His Republican credentials are being challenged. McCain may win the popular vote, but he will be locked out by the Republican Party establishment. Meantime, they tell me, my candidate, Bush, has been pushed so far to the political right that he’ll never get back to the center — which is the only spot from which a candidate can win the Independent vote and therefore the election.
Most of these objections, however, turn out to be an optical illusion created by campaign-season hype and media spin. McCain is obviously a Republican, and has been a good warrior in the conservative cause over the course of his political career. If McCain wins the popular vote, and the Republican bosses invoke party rules to deny him the nomination, Republicans will confirm their most negative image and they will lose both the presidency and Congress in November. That would be a real downside. But I don’t think that is likely to happen. We may be the stupid party, but we are not yet the idiot party.
Bush has indeed been pushed to the right to date, but it should not be forgotten that Bush started out as much a candidate of the break-the-mold, reformist center as McCain. What originally ignited Republican enthusiasm for Bush at all levels of the party was his re-election as governor of Texas with 70 percent of the popular vote, 49 percent of the Hispanic vote and nearly 30 percent of the African-American vote. In other words, the power behind the Bush campaign was not the party “establishment” as has been claimed, but the across-the-board conviction that he was a candidate who could draw new constituencies into the Republican fold. An additional factor that impressed party regulars was that Bush had won the support of every major Democratic elected official in the state.
Bush now has a brief window before the March 7 primaries in which he can resuscitate that persona for the voting electorates in the contended states. If he does, he will go on to the general election as the candidate of his party, and will have no difficulty galvanizing these new forces in American political life.
If he doesn’t, McCain will do the job. Either way, the GOP has a winner.