McCain tries to change GOP, while aide disses Palin

The last Republican presidential nominee wants to moderate the party, but conservatives aren't happy

Published October 2, 2009 6:50PM (EDT)

Often, when a presidential nominee loses decisively, he becomes a slightly embarrassing presence in his party’s scene. Richard Nixon threw a major temper tantrum in 1962 (after losing the California gubernatorial race), and only came back in 1968, after the GOP’s Goldwater disaster. Michael Dukakis slunk back ignominiously to Massachusetts, and the Democrats rebuked his brand of bloodless, northeastern liberalism by nominating a southern moderate populist four years later. Al Gore grew a beard and disappeared for a while.

Not John McCain.

Politico reports today that McCain is engaged in an active effort to help shape the future of the Republican Party. That means recruiting candidates he likes to run for higher office, and fundraising and campaigning for his favorites.

Essentially, McCain is cherry-picking opportunities to bolster his party’s moderate wing. For example, he urged a dithering Rep. Mark Kirk --an Illinois moderate -- to run for Senate. Says Kirk, “[H]is strong encouragement and backing -- and he’s a personal hero of mine -- did have an impact on my thinking.”

Likewise, McCain took a swing through Kansas to back up Rep. Jerry Moran in his Senate primary against the more conservative Rep. Todd Tiahrt. Key McCain supporters from the 2008 race are also seeing payback: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who arguably delivered his state, and thus the presidential nomination, to McCain, can count on the senator’s support in his own Senate bid. And former McCain surrogate Meg Whitman’s effort to win the governorship of California enjoys the senator's active backing as well.

The fact that this behavior bears some resemblance to how a politician lays the groundwork of a presidential bid is no coincidence. McCain is obviously not going to seek the presidency again. But presidential primaries are fundamentally contests over the party’s future, which the Arizona senator is concerned with, so he’s running a pre-primary type campaign, with nothing to follow it.

Nor is he the only member of his old organization concerned with the direction of the GOP. At a conference in Washington on Friday, former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt was asked about Sarah Palin’s future. He replied, “I think that she has talents, but my honest view is that she would not be a winning candidate for the Republican candidate in 2012, and in fact, were she to be the nominee, we would have a catastrophic election result.”

Of course, much of the party is fonder of Palin than of McCain, and thinks that the catastrophe was in nominating him; in their version of events, going with McCain meant selling out conservatism and inviting disaster.

This kind of thinking sends a party into a downward spiral. The GOP base is likely to view McCain’s current efforts, and Schmidt’s comments, not as healthy argument, but as a corrupting influence. Note the dismissive quote given to Politico by conservative blogger Erick Erickson: “McCain has never really been a conservative, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s picking non-conservative candidates.”

That probably says more about Erickson -- and the GOP's right wing in general -- than it does about McCain.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

MORE FROM Gabriel Winant

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2008 Elections 2010 Elections John Mccain R-ariz. Republican Party Sarah Palin