Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani differ in a lot of ways, but as candidates they have one important feature in common: Their vulnerabilities in the primaries are also vulnerabilities in the general election. Romney’s Mormonism and flip-flopping are political liabilities both with Republican primary voters and with the electorate at large. So too with Giuliani’s support for abortion and his messy personal life: They will cost him votes both in the primaries and, if he makes it through them, in the general election.
John McCain has a different situation. Almost all of the features that hurt him in the primaries — from his willingness to break with his party to his campaign-finance legislation to his belief that global warming is a real problem — would help him in the general election. Even at this stage of the campaign, he is doing slightly better than Giuliani in polls testing the Republican candidates against Hillary Clinton. (Both McCain and Giuliani do much better than Romney or Fred Thompson in these polls, but keep in mind that McCain and Giuliani are better known.)
My own view is that McCain would be the strongest general-election candidate the Republicans could put up next year. He is solid on almost all of the important issues: the war, judges, entitlements, abortion, trade. . . Even on taxes, he has righted himself. He voted against the Bush tax cuts, but he has never voted to raise income taxes and, this spring, ruled out any such move in an interview with me.
I endorsed McCain this spring because he is a conservative who can win in November 2008. Since my endorsement, he has moved from triumph to triumph. Well, okay, his campaign very nearly ended — I did not foresee that the immigration bill would be revived and McCain would then spend weeks alienating conservatives — and diagnosticians differ about whether it is showing new signs of life this month.
Sometimes people remember that they dislike someone even when they have forgotten what inspired their dislike. I think something like this has happened to McCain: His biggest problem with conservatives isn’t that they have had so many disagreements, but that they have a bad impression of him. If he is to win the nomination, he needs to do something to make them take a fresh look.
I think he should do something dramatic: Renounce ambition for a second term. He should say that he intends not just to win the presidency but to win a mandate for the few big things he really wants to accomplish: fixing entitlements and beating terrorists. A one-term limit would instantly separate McCain from the pack, making the other Republican contenders look self-interested by comparison. Concentrating on issues such as terrorism and entitlements would also play to his strengths with conservatives, and distract attention from his weaknesses.
A one-term promise would also serve McCain well in the general election. We are nearing the end of two very long presidencies, which we have not done since 1960. (And these last two have been more polarizing than Truman and Eisenhower were.) It would highlight his devotion to service, and Senator Clinton’s calculating ambition.
The public, never fond of Washington politicians as a class, is especially sick of them these days. It longs for leaders who are above the poisonous partisanship they see on TV. A one-term pledge would remind people that McCain has been such a leader.
The pledge could also help him govern. It won’t hurt him: The fear that he would be an instant lame duck is overblown. Even in his weak state, President Bush has plenty of power. Witness the Democrats’ inability to make him change his Iraq policy. I suspect that the reason second terms usually go badly isn’t that second-term presidents cannot run for reelection, but because they and their people are exhausted, shellshocked, and out of good ideas.
Making a one-term pledge would make it possible for McCain to win a mandate for the mission of his presidency. And it would be important for him to have one, since he will almost certainly be facing a Democratic Congress.
If McCain decided to campaign for one term, when should he make the announcement? If he does it when he is far down in the polls, he risks looking desperate. If he waits until after he wins a primary, he might figure he does not need to do it. At the moment, McCain is enjoying a brief resurgence, and a lot of conservatives — particularly conservatives who want to stop Giuliani and beat Clinton — are not sure who to support. McCain can win some of their votes, but at the moment it does not appear that he is going to win enough of them. The time to act, in other words, is now.