For an assessment of what the latest round of primary results means for the presidential race, Salon turned to a panel of experts: Ed Rollins, Arianna Huffington, David Horowitz, Joe Conason and Sean Wilentz. Their comments follow.
Ed Rollins, Republican political consultant
Virginia is a tough state. McCain, I think, truly is a man of bravery, and made a deliberate decision there to really draw the line with the [Christian conservatives]. It didn’t help him, and I think the final votes in Virginia showed it might have kept it from being close. But it was an act of bravery. Anybody could have said those things in a state that didn’t matter. He said them in a state that did matter.
But the problem with McCain is that he’s in a war of attrition. Even though he’s had a good run and surprised a lot of people, my sense is that after Super Tuesday, it’s going to be pretty clearly Bush’s nomination. McCain is a very competitive guy, and I personally think he would be a stronger candidate in the final election. But look, Bush has the whole party operation behind him. It’s like George Bush’s battle for the nomination in 1988, when two out of three primary voters were not happy with Bush as the candidate and were looking for an alternative. Dole, Kemp and Robertson were suddenly in there. But Bush was able to bring the party base around to him — he was helped of course by a lot of residual Reagan supporters — and he won the nomination and the election.
I think a lot of Republicans were really resentful that Bush was sort of coronated as the inevitable nominee. The parties don’t mean much to anybody anymore. It’s all a personality contest, and McCain is, by far, winning the personality contest so far. Having been a part of Reagan’s campaigns in 1976 and 1980, and a bit with the Perot campaign in 1992, I can sense that McCain has tapped into some of that same appeal that a strong character draws.
The problem I think for Bush is that really, before the primaries, people didn’t know that much about him. Suddenly, to some people, he seems like a candidate of the religious right. It’s very hard to overcome these first impressions, as Dan Quayle later found out. The irony is that if you were to put Dan Quayle today up against George W. Bush, he would do just fine. But he was just never able to rehabilitate his image after the Republican convention in 1988. These first impressions are crucial. Sometimes you can alter them, and for Bush, it’s still early. But he hasn’t done as well as expected, hasn’t turned out to be the giant-killer people once thought he was.
Arianna Huffington, political columnist
Basically, I think that last night we saw clearly that it will take a movement to reform our current political system and that it’s not going to be brought about through the two party process. As it happened with the civil rights movement, it took a movement to rise up and demand changes to a broken system, and political leaders only ratified it through legislation. McCain’s victories show the longing for reform among voters, but his defeat makes it clear that it’s just not going to happen through the parties.
Now, if you look at California, you have this great opportunity for McCain to cry foul. It’s a classic case of the two parties hijacking the process. The people of California voted not once, you understand, but twice for an open primary, and the courts upheld the system. And then the legislators changed it. That should not be allowed.
If McCain can win the “beauty contest” in California and lose the Republican primary, it will be very interesting. We’ll see if McCain is a real populist, if he will act on what the voters are saying. Then the question will be whether he’s going to do that, or if he’s going to end up going to the convention, endorsing George Bush, and playing the typical political game.
David Horowitz, Salon columnist
The dynamics of the political debate inside the Republican primary have begun to change in a manner favorable to Bush. McCain’s attack on Robertson and Falwell in Virginia was a tactical over-reach.
Disciplining the religious right and showing one’s independence from them is a necessity for any viable Republican candidate. The political center in American politics is allergic to the Falwells and the Robertsons with their embarrassing intolerances and weird cosmologies, and in my view rightly so. For Bush it will be advisable at some future date. Cutting Robertson’s phone bank off is a first step.
But McCain over-reached. Instead of merely distancing himself from Falwell and Robertson, he compared them to the race-haters and race-baiters Farrakhan and Sharpton, which they are not. He compounded this mistake by calling Bush a “Pat Robertson Republican,” thus insulting the Republican mainstream, which is as embarrassed and concerned by Robertson as is the political center, but stops short of demonizing them. The effect of this is to lock down Republicans for Bush.
Thus ends the first phase of the primary campaign. Until now, Bush has had to prove himself to the conservative base of the party, which has distrusted the Bush camp for two decades. As a Bush supporter myself, the biggest heat I got from friends in the months between Bush’s announced candidacy and the primaries was “Is this guy really a conservative? Or is he like his father?”
Well, Bush in fact is a break-the-mold conservative who is inclusive and “compassionate,” which means he’s ready to undertake some government activism in behalf of the truly disadvantaged. This puts him in a position to pick up independents and conservative Democrats, which is what he did in Texas, garnering 69 percent of the vote. By running to the center in the primaries, McCain forced Bush to the right and into the arms of Robertson merely to survive. But the ferocity of McCain’s attack has ended this phase of the contest, and now provides an incentive to Bush to move forcefully to the center.
By driving the right to Bush, McCain has actually freed Bush to focus on showing his more compassionate colors. Conversely McCain has cast himself in a more negative, divisive light, which is at odds with the centrist-heroic persona that has gotten him here. The result is that Bush is steadily picking up more independents with each successive primary. Since Bush’s inclusiveness comes naturally to him, he is well-positioned to increase his lead in the next phase of the campaign.
Joe Conason, Salon columnist
Bush will live to regret his “rescue” by the religious right. Fighting off McCain, the Texan has been pushed further and further into the same extremist corner he has been trying to escape since this campaign began. Does the result in Virginia mean that Pat Robertson gets a prime-time speech at the GOP convention?
Lately, McCain seems to be trying to cripple the Republican establishment by breaking away moderates and independents. Maybe he wants to take them down with him. If so, his tactics are working, though not as well for him as for Al Gore. Exit polls in Virginia Tuesday showed that 40 percent of McCain voters plan to vote for Al Gore in the fall.
As for Bradley, the Washington state results were a devastating rebuff to both his preening self-righteousness and his inscrutable strategy. Among Democratic voters at least, there now seems to be greater fatigue with him than with Clinton or Gore. His own record in the Senate and afterward provided no rationale for this campaign. His protest candidacy has lacked the energy to inspire a real insurgency. That is why dissident Democrats are now more interested in McCain than they are in him.
Sean Wilentz, Princeton professor and New Republic contributing editor
McCain has never really had a chance, despite all the hubbub. He may — and I stress may — be a presentiment of the GOP’s future, but not for 2000. Basically, the Republicans are in the same situation as the Democrats were circa 1972, and it will take them at least a couple of election cycles to reinvent themselves. Yesterday’s primaries confirm this: Republicans love George W. So George W. will be the nominee, and in all likelihood will lose. If he’s not the McGovern, then he’s the Mondale of today’s GOP.
As for Bradley-Gore, Bradley has long been finished, and yesterday simply confirmed it. Democrats (and the majority of the country as a whole) love Clinton-Gore. Ergo, Gore will be the nominee. And, at present, you’ve got to see Gore as the likely winner in November.