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After a brief turn as a lavishly funded front-runner, then a period as a spurned also-ran, and finally a long climb toward recovery, John McCain is what it always seemed he’d be in the Republican primary race — next in line, the natural heir to the Republican nomination.
McCain’s journey to where he always should have been in the first place is a saga worthy of Tolstoy. It plays into the larger, powerful narrative of McCain’s candidacy and life as the battered survivor who is willing to suffer for the cause. McCain is springing back up so fast — to the lead in New Hampshire and in at least one national poll — because he was so far down.
But if McCain is back to being the heir to the nomination, he is still an extraordinarily weak one. Republican nominations tend to be bestowed on candidates who have long experience, who have run before and who have the support of the establishment. The 21-year senator who nearly won in 2000 has only two of the three, with the establishment wary of him after years of his apostasies.
McCain’s comeback has been fueled by the success of the infusion of troops into Iraq that he was supporting long before anyone had thought to call it “the surge.” In his early and fierce advocacy of the surge, McCain did far more to advance the war on terror than any other candidate. It showed keen strategic intuition and put in the best possible light characteristic McCain qualities, especially a cussed willingness to forge his own path.
That quality had hitherto been leveraged by McCain to abridge free-speech rights with campaign-finance reform and to grant amnesty to illegal aliens with the McCain-Kennedy “comprehensive” immigration reform. The success of the surge has served to cleanse the Republican palate of these offenses, and McCain has used it to highlight his foreign-policy and military experience and his truth-telling courage. The surge has been a character issue for McCain, and his TV ads, accordingly, tend to be biographical and characterological.
McCain’s bravery on the big things keeps him from taking heat on his political shape-shifting. McCain was a standard Reaganite Republican, who then ran as a raging populist in the 2000 primaries, then lurched so far left in reaction to Bush’s victory over him that John Kerry seriously wooed him to join the Democratic ticket in 2004.
McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts and worked with Democrats on nearly everything. “It is no exaggeration to say that he has co-sponsored virtually the entire domestic agenda of the Democratic Party,” Jonathan Chait wrote for the liberal New Republic in 2002.
McCain tacked back right in preparation for his second run for the nomination, coming out in favor of extending the very Bush tax cuts he had opposed. His shift was then complicated by his continued advocacy of comprehensive immigration reform, which seemed to sink his campaign. Eventually, McCain was forced to say he changed his mind and favors enhanced enforcement before anything else, although the liberal editorial boards that have recently endorsed him, reading his body language, still credit him with favoring amnesty. For Mr. Authentic, McCain has more than his share of insincerity, seen most often in his through-gritted-teeth “I’d strangle you if I didn’t have to smile” grin.
McCain is an America nationalist and progressive reformer in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, but the real consistent line throughout his career is a belief in his own righteousness. This can lead him to great prescience, as on the surge; foolhardy lack of proportion, as on his crusade for campaign-finance reform; and party-splitting, self-destructive stubbornness, as on immigration reform. If Republicans pick him, he won’t be the safe, known quantity they usually look for in a next-in-line nominee, but a go-it-alone politician, unpredictable except for the courage and irascibility he’ll bring to whatever he does.
If McCain is the nominee, the saga has just begun.
© 2007 by King Features Syndicate