This is the year of the reform candidate and the independent voter. That's the combustible mix that has allowed a boring candidate like Bill Bradley to make an interesting run at a sitting vice president who seemed to have the nomination locked down before the campaign even began. That's also the combination that has enabled John McCain to power his way to an unlikely miracle, bringing him from the distant territory of single digits to a neck-and-neck race for the Republican Party nomination.
Few predicted any of this, but at least one politician sensed that something of this type might be coming as long ago as shortly after the close of the 1998 congressional elections. A newly retired Newt Gingrich told me over breakfast in Beverly Hills, Calif., one day that "the most remarkable result of the '98 campaign, which everyone should be studying, is Jesse Ventura's victory in Minnesota. Nationwide, Democrats and Republicans turned out a combined 35 percent of registered voters. But in Minnesota, 60 percent of the electorate came out to vote. In the last week before the election, Ventura registered more supporters for his Reform Party effort than either Democrats or Republicans were able to do, separately, over the entire campaign."
Gingrich's point was that Ventura had tapped an enormous reservoir of political discontent in the American heartland, a silent electorate that was prepared to lift its voice for a maverick politician if it felt that its votes might really count.
To be fair, most of the commentators and strategists who failed to see the McCain phenomenon coming thought that the independent/reform vote would find its home in the Reform Party this year. They failed to appreciate how much the Reform Party is the captive of a Texas ego and a Marxist-Leninist sect. Or to foresee that this cabal would force Jesse Ventura himself to leave the party, sending most of the independent vote right through the open doors of the reformed primaries and back inside the two major parties themselves.
Gingrich somewhat misgauged the Ventura phenomenon, as well. The former speaker thought that the support for Ventura was the result of his bold stance against government bureaucracy and for tax cuts. In fact, the charisma of the Ventura campaign lay in the candidate himself, whose heterodoxy, candor and accessibility suggested that he was a man of the people, a man you could count on to buck the system and someone you could trust.
This is precisely the formula of the McCain candidacy -- and not by accident. McCain went to Minnesota with his top aide to study the Ventura campaign when he was preparing his own run.
McCain's openness and off-the-cuff informality, his war-hero persona and readiness to challenge his own party, plus his decision to grant "uncontrolled access" to a potentially hostile press are the key elements that have enabled to him to gain his present momentum. By contrast, the front-runner strategy that Texas Gov. George W. Bush pursued through the New Hampshire primary had him sticking to a script, controlling the media, mobilizing the party establishment and presenting himself as an irresistible force.
These all seemed like reasonable choices at the time, but they had the effect of setting Bush up as the system candidate -- the perfect foil for the McCain insurgency he now faces. The resulting electoral reversals have provoked a re-thinking of the Bush strategy and a re-shaping of his campaign. It has made the race even more exciting than this year's Super Bowl, and it's not over yet.
One irony of this electoral moment is the way McCain's upsurge has undermined the very issue that had provided the original fuel for his candidacy -- campaign-finance reform. Probably there was no greater conventional wisdom early on in these contests than that money, in the end, would be the decisive factor. As the Washington Post's Kevin Merida put it just after the Iowa caucuses, when four Republican hopefuls -- some with 20 years experience in the electoral process -- had already dropped out: "George Bush, it could be argued, has scared them all off. And not a single vote in an actual election has been counted."
Indeed, that was the complaint of pundits and candidates alike. Wow, were they wrong!
Merida wrote his Post article when Elizabeth Dole announced she would be the fourth candidate to drop out. "The bottom line remains money," she groused. "It restricts your ability to communicate with voters." But was a lack of visibility really the problem for Elizabeth Dole? She has been in the public eye for 20 years. As a former president of the Red Cross, she was able to get national news coverage of the heart-tugging kind by visiting refugee camps in Macedonia after the Balkan War. Even more important, she had a ton of free media -- all of it softball -- as the first serious woman candidate for the presidency ever.
Being the wife of the previous Republican to run for the office didn't hurt her, either. Elizabeth Dole should have been the last candidate to complain about media access. Her campaign failed because it was badly organized and badly run, and her message lost traction the more she defined it. It probably didn't help her cause that even though she was the first woman presidential candidate, her image was entirely retro and her message, like her husband's, a one-way bridge to the political past.
Dole had been preceded in failure by John Kasich, Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle, all of whom complained about money, but -- with the exception of Kasich -- none of whom could sound credible deploying that excuse. Both Quayle and Alexander have had two runs apiece, and have been found wanting.
What only one reporter, Alison Mitchell of the New York Times, has seemed to notice (and she only in passing) is that one of the main secrets of McCain's success has been his lack of campaign funds. Because of this he had to put a premium on getting free media, and thus on giving the press uncontrolled access. His strategy of "I will go anywhere, on any show, with any host, under any conditions," paid off enormously, particularly since his campaign film clip as a suffering war hero in communist captivity accompanied many of these interview-appearances. Could any political strategist wish for a better presentation of their candidate than this infomercial looking like news?
Nonetheless, McCain has stuck to his campaign script, sympathizing with Dole when she dropped out: "I'm sorry she lost the battle of the bucks instead of ideas." But McCain's political director, John Weaver, knows better.
As Weaver told Merida, "These are not surprising facts, nor should they have been for any of those candidates who have dropped out. We haven't thought much about George Bush's money or Steve Forbes' money. If money were the deciding factor, we'd have President Perot, President Connally, President Gramm. We're going to stay in the race until John's the nominee or until enough primaries have spoken. Money can't buy you love."
McCain's is a compelling personal story, both for the media and the public. That's why his campaign was able to gain the Big Mo. That's why he was able to get on television.
Now McCain's success has forced Bush to change his story. Part of Bush's image as an establishment candidate was always an optical illusion anyway -- created by the media, his opponents and his campaign strategists.
The war chest that Bush amassed -- and that he has now been forced to spend to counter McCain's free press -- has been portrayed as evidence that he is the "big money" candidate or the candidate of big money. This is hardly the truth. The fact is that money tends to follow support, particularly with the $1,000 caps for individual donations. Bush's support comes from more than 100,000 donors -- a political movement in itself.
When Bush built up his early money lead, political analyst Bill Schneider documented that Bush's money strength exactly reflected his poll strength. In fact, each of the candidate's money-raising efforts at the time -- Dole's, Alexander's, Quayle's, Bradley's and Gore's -- reflected their poll numbers with remarkable precision. Money is just another way of voting. No candidate, left or right, Democrat or Republican, can win a national election without broad-based support from all ranks of society, including the very successful.
In an article in the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol and David Brooks described the McCain campaign as the third "insurgency" to rock the Republican Party in a generation. The previous two were led by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, respectively. Both of them brought new blood into the party. Both of them challenged the party establishment.
But just as Bush is not the candidate of big money, so he is not the establishment candidate, except in the sense of having won its confidence early. If McCain beats him for the nomination, McCain will have the support of the party establishment just as surely as Bush has had until now.
The silver lining for Republicans in an otherwise fractious campaign is that, like McCain, George Bush is the leader of a grass-roots constituency. He has shown he can move to the center with an inclusive message, and his record is every bit as reform-based as McCain's. The Republican Party, moreover, has led the way in every major reform of the past 20 years, whether it is supply-side tax policies, deregulation, balanced budgets or welfare reform. In the general campaign a Bush-McCain ticket or a McCain-Bush ticket would carry this reform tradition forward and be a formidable challenge for its Democrat opponent.