Sunday, December 09, 2007

McCain in Nashua: Last Man Standing?

The last time I saw John McCain, he had just won the 2000 New Hampshire primary. My wife and I, to our own surprise and largely out of apathy with the Gore-Bradley race, had voted for him. As the returns started coming in and the magnitude of his upset of George W. Bush was becoming clear, I heard a CNN reporter sign off from the hotel where the victory party was starting. "That's just a few miles from here," I said. "We could go."

Nobody stopped us at the door and we shoe-horned ourselves into the crowd of people standing in the ballroom. Eventually McCain came out to make a victory announcement. I don't remember a word he said, just the buzz of hope and excitement in the room. Just a week or two before, the nomination of George II had been inevitable. And now it wasn't. Anything could happen.

That was a long time ago.

Saturday morning McCain was back in Nashua holding a town hall meeting. About 300 of us surrounded a square plywood platform six inches high and ten feet on a side. From my front-row seat, I kept worrying that McCain, older now and less steady, would back off the edge of the platform and fall. But he never did.

McCain is still a master of the town-hall format. He answers questions -- even hostile questions -- patiently and with empathy. ("Meeting adjourned," he announces in response to the first gotcha. The room erupts in laughter, and then he answers.) He tells corny jokes and at the same time manages to wink at you, as if the real joke is that you have to tell jokes to win the world's most serious job. He runs himself down, confessing to being fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, saying that his candidacy proves that "in America anything is possible." And yet no one in the room forgets that he is John McCain, and he has survived things that would have destroyed any mere mortal. It is an amazing balancing act, much better than answering questions from all sides without falling off a plywood platform.

McCain's campaign centers on character. The warm-up video starts with his POW experience, and is full of testimonials from people who have known him for a very long time, concluding with his mother -- a surprisingly youthful woman -- telling us how lucky this country would be to have Johnny as its president. (I doubt my mom would describe my virtues with nearly so much conviction.) The same themes sound again and again: country before self, volunteering for the hard job, refusing to take the easy way out.

He is at his best when he can translate those character themes directly into issues like "the challenge of radical Islamic extremism." The other Republicans (besides Ron Paul) are running on a lesser-evil platform: We have to be bad because our enemies are worse. Strength means abandoning airy-fairy ideals and cutting corners on morality. But to McCain, idealism is strength. "We won the Cold War not with a tank battle on the plains of Western Europe. We won the Cold War because we were able to prove that we and everything we stood for were far superior to the forces of communism and the evil represented by the Soviet Union. That’s the way we’re going to win this ideological struggle over the long run. And that’s why I will declare we will not torture anyone in our custody and I will close Guantanamo Bay."

I came to watch the audience as much as the candidate. During the Bush years I have grown increasingly alienated from Republicans and suspicious of their base. The televised Republican debates seem like Saturday Night Live skits, as the candidates compete to see who can be nastier to illegal immigrants and more vicious towards suspected terrorists. (Romney promises to double Guantanamo's prison, not close it. He doesn't say who he will put there.) What kind of freak show, I wondered, is a Republican rally these days?

Not much of one at all, if this was typical. True, we were overwhelmingly white -- one black was there to collect signatures for Health Care Voters and the other was part of a class field trip from Tufts. But in New Hampshire even Obama doesn't draw many more. One lunatic question -- about par for the course -- promoted some conspiracy theory about the UN. Democratic rallies have their own lunatics, and the questions are different but no better. At worst everyone else sounded like someone you could have a reasonable disagreement with. A question expressing "rage" about illegal immigration got only a smattering of applause. (The round of applause I started in response to the no-torture pledge was louder.) The hot-button social issues -- abortion, gay marriage -- were conspicuously absent. McCain didn't mention them and neither did we.

No candidate is more identified with the Iraq War than McCain. Up to now it has worked against him, but (at least among Republican voters) it may be turning in his favor. Saturday he told the story like this: "I believed like everybody else did that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and I believed that we could win a quick initial military victory." He admits Saddam did not have WMDs, but defends the decision to remove him from power. And we did "win a lightning-like initial victory." But he blames Donald Rumsfeld's few-boots-on-the-ground strategy for botching the promise of that success.

He portrays himself as a consistent critic of that strategy, and sees the Surge as his vindication. "I went over there and I saw that the Rumsfeld strategy was not only not working, but it was doomed to failure. And I came back and I gave speeches and I said we’ve got to stop this. We’ve got to change the strategy to one that can succeed. … After nearly four years of failure we finally got rid of Rumsfeld and we got a new strategy. ... Now we are succeeding in Iraq. ... I’m the only one of those running for the nomination of this party that said Rumsfeld would fail and what we needed to do, who stood up while [the other Republican candidates] were either quiet or supported other courses of action. I did that because I’ve had the background and experience to make the right judgment."

I have scruples about questioning candidates I have decided not to vote for. (I'm voting in the Democratic primary this year, probably for Edwards.) I consider myself a guest at their rallies, so I won't ask a question just to embarrass them. But I really wanted to know, so I pushed McCain on Iraq: "I understand why you don’t want to set a date to get all our troops out of Iraq. But all the hopeful things I hear about Iraq seem awfully vague. And I want to know: Are we still going to be losing people there ten years from now, twenty years from now? Are we still going to be spending $10 billion a month ten years from now, twenty years from now?”

And he answered: “No. I understand your skepticism/cynicism. Because for nearly four years we were told ‘mission accomplished', 'a few dead enders', 'the last throes', 'stuff happens’ -- I’m sure you remember all those – while things were going bad in Iraq.” He pointed to the recent drop in casualties and other improving statistics as evidence that the Surge is finally the right strategy. He predicted that within months ("I can't say exactly how many months") General Petraeus would announce that the situation had improved to the point where we could start drawing down troop levels. (He'd better. There aren't any more troops to send.) From there, McCain expects the Iraqi army to take up more and more of the burden until American casualties are essentially zero. He leaves open the possibility of a long-term American presence in Iraq, but thinks the American people will accept that if we aren't constantly losing people.

We'll see. That story can keep working through the primaries. But some further visible improvement will be necessary by November.

I was pleased to hear McCain take global warming seriously. In the 2000 campaign, he admits, "I didn't know anything about climate change." But he credits Senate committee hearings with making him realize "there is an overwhelming body of scientific opinion that climate change is real and that it can have devastating effects on our planet. ... We’ve got to develop green technologies. We’ve got to go back to nuclear power. We have to emphasize wind and solar. We also have to practice conservation. … We should be able to develop a battery that will take a car 200 miles. We should go to ethanol – all kinds of ethanol. Not just corn-based, but sugar-cane-based and other biofuels. We can do it if we give it the priority it deserves. My friends, green technologies are good." He insists that nuclear power is safe, and points to the French, who get 80% of their power from nuclear plants. “They’re closer to their Kyoto goals than any other country.”

When a woman holding an infant asked what a McCain administration had to offer her children, he answered: "A cleaner planet. A government that they can trust in. A safety net system that will be there for them of Social Security and Medicare, and a nation that is a beacon of hope and liberty and freedom and a shining city on a hill."

McCain's status as the early Republican front-runner is long gone. He's in single digits in Iowa and in the teens in New Hampshire. And it's getting late to turn things around. But the Republicans have been playing whack-a-mole with their candidates lately. Scandal is draining Giulani's always luke-warm support. Romney has never had much of a national following, and his Iowa-based strategy seems to be failing. Thompson never caught fire. Huckabee is the surging candidate, but the party's plutocrat wing has no more stomach for him than the evangelicals have for Giuliani. The plutocrats' knives are out now, and we'll see over the next few weeks whether Huckabee can fend them off.

McCain may yet be the last man standing. Evangelicals prefer him to Giuliani. Plutocrats will take him over Huckabee. And I keep waiting for Republicans to notice that only McCain can deliver the full anti-Hillary message. Romney can't make the case that she's phony and calculating, because who is more phony and calculating than Romney? Giuliani can't point to the Clinton scandals, because the Clintons are a model family next to the Giulianis. Huckabee can't fear-monger about terrorism, because Hillary's security credentials are better than his. If Republicans want to deploy the complete Clinton Attack Armada, they need McCain.

Years ago, McCain's electability was undeniable. His candidacy would have drawn overwhelming support from moderates and even from a few liberals willing to choose character over ideology. But like Colin Powell and Tony Blair, John McCain co-signed for Bush's war and has been left holding the debt. If he's going to make it to the White House now, he's going to need a lot of help from Baghdad. The news has to be good from now to November.

That would take a ridiculous run of luck, both for McCain and for America's war effort. I wouldn't bet on it, but I think he would. "I'm the luckiest guy I've ever known," he says on the campaign video. "I've never known anyone as fortunate as I am."


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