John McCain's campaign to get the 1,034 delegates required for the Republican presidential nomination crashed and burned on Super Tuesday -- but his campaign to shift the ethos of American politics is still very much alive.
"I am no longer an active candidate for my party's nomination," he said in a short speech Thursday morning. But he is actively in charge of campaign 2000's most coveted wild card, the McCain voter. In fact, his speech suspending his campaign seemed directed to the "millions of Americans" who "have rallied to our banner" and "ignited the cause of reform, a cause far greater and more important than the ambitions of a single candidate. "He implored them: "Promise me that you'll never give up."
Al Gore and George W. Bush are now going out of their way to capture that reform constituency. While Bush pleaded, "John, let's team up and win," Gore was shameless: "To those Republicans and independents out there, whose heroes are Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, to all of you I say as well, join with us. Our campaign is now your cause."
Meanwhile good (aka blindly loyal) Republicans everywhere were urging McCain to endorse Bush without delay. As Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., one of the few senators behind McCain, put it: "John understands the consequences and the big stakes. The big stakes are defeating Al Gore." Clearly McCain has decided there are bigger things. He offered his "best wishes" to Bush but did not endorse him, nor did he hand over his supporters to the GOP as if they were a gift he could deliver.
The reason, in fact, they are not "deliverable" is the reason they are McCain supporters in the first place. They flocked to him precisely because he embodied a change from the kind of politics-as-usual attitude such an endorsement would represent. If, after spending his entire campaign defining Bush as emblematic of everything that is wrong with modern politics, McCain had turned around and backed him, that giant stomping sound would not be applause but rather a stampede in the other direction.
What should make it impossible for McCain to pucker his lips, swallow his principles and play political kiss-and-make-up is that he was the one who labeled his campaign "bigger than John McCain" -- a crusade to topple a corrupt and broken system. Even in defeat, he assured his supporters "that our crusade continues tonight, tomorrow, the next day ..." And I suspect their thunderous reaction would have been quite different had he continued, "until the day I stand on the dais and raise the hand of my good friend George W. Bush!"
Before his Super Tuesday flame-out, McCain repeatedly insisted that he was a "loyal Republican." But in his speech on Thursday, he hinted at the dilemma he will be confronting in the days ahead: "I love my party. It is my home ... But I'm also dedicated to the necessary cause of reform. And I will never walk away ... What is good for my country is good for my party." That's a very different sentiment from what's expected from a "loyal" Republican: "What's good for my party is good for my country."
So McCain will have to decide: is it loyalty to surrender to a diminished party -- one appealing to an ever-shrinking universe of constituents and controlled by Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell? And is loyalty to the party more important than loyalty to all the people -- as McCain put it, "Independents, Democrats, Libertarians and Vegetarians" -- inspired by his message? Is he now going to walk away from them and into the welcoming arms of the very party establishment that he branded the "Death Star"?
Wouldn't he rather make history by running as an independent than be just another also-ran political hack returning to the fold? "I'll take our crusade back to the United States Senate," he said on Thursday. But can you imagine returning to the Senate after so much time spent trashing its leaders? It would be the chilliest reception for a war hero since McLean Stevenson tried to talk his way back onto "MASH" after "Hello, Larry" tanked.
McCain may not be ready to pursue a third-party run, but he made it clear that he's equally unready to support the man now heading his own party. It was McCain who framed his battle with Bush as a battle for "the soul of the party." Now that he's lost, what exactly would he be teaming up with?
It was the people, fed up with Bush and Gore, who answered his call when he was hovering at 3 percent in the polls. And it was McCain who turned the campaign into a cause. If he meant anything he said these past six months, he can't go home again.