Speaking at the conservative Manhattan Institute in New York City recently — a very unofficial pre-primary primary venue (Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have dropped by in recent months) — the Vietnam vet and former prisoner of war was clear and adamant about the War on Terror. For him, this war is a unified whole: Not just discrete campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the reason for Israel’s pounding at Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the reason Syria shouldn’t be off the radar. He noted that Israel’s enemy is “also dedicated to the destruction of the United States of America.” That’s a crucial thing to get and McCain gets it. And that could mean a lot come November 2008.
But McCain has his challenges securing a right-wing fan base. As a recent Esquire piece made clear, he’s not all that chummy with conservatives, especially religious ones, who are key to winning GOP primaries. And although McCain was smart about his language at the Manhattan event, referencing conservatives as “us,” it’s going to be an upward climb for him.
McCain distanced himself dramatically from the president on embryonic-stem-cell-research funding, expressing his disappointment that the president would choose to use his first veto on this issue, at the same time invoking the Reagan name (one of many times over the course of his speech) to express his disapproval. Although this is a confusing issue, in large part to terrible media coverage, this could also be a primary problem for him, coupled with his troubled past with President Bush.
Even though Bush and McCain have since kissed and made up over, say, McCain’s 2000 ad campaign announcing that Bush “twists the truth like Clinton,” it remains awkward for McCain to present himself as Bush’s natural successor. The two do have a few things in common though. On immigration, for instance — McCain’s as scolding and insulting as the president can be to those insisting on law enforcement; to many, as a supporter of the president’s policy, he’s a supporter of “amnesty.” At the Manhattan Institute event he talked about a teenager who died crossing the border — as if those who want enforcement first, including the members of his own party in congressional leadership, were to blame for her death. McCain’s signature legislation — campaign-finance reform — is another thing he’s unpopular with much of the right for, and has that in common with the current POTUS too.
But what if the unspeakable happens? What if we’re attacked again within the borders of the United States? Rudy Giuliani has an obvious Sept. 11 gravitas. But who has the real foreign-policy cred? Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Senator (and former Virginia governor) George Allen can certainly make the case for themselves, but neither has former Vietnam POW McCain’s obvious advantage. As one pro-McCain politico recently told me, foreign policy is McCain’s “key asset”: “His national-security credentials … are accepted across the political spectrum. Given the state of the world, I don’t think anyone is going to be elected president in ‘08 who isn’t ready to be commander in chief from day one. In truth there are few people in either party who can satisfy that requirement.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.
Copyright 2006, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.