Friday, July 13, 2007

John McCain: is collapse imminent?

You may or may not have heard that over the past week, nearly all of Republican Senator John McCain's campaign staff walked out on him, including long-time friend and aide John Weaver. McCain, the presumed frontrunner just a year ago, has suddenly found himself in a political wilderness, knee-deep in Iowa grasses, future uncertain. What is the senator to do?

It would seem that if McCain has any hope at all, he'll need to jump-start his campaign. I'd say that of all the current Republican candidates, McCain has proven himself to be the most capable of doing so, too. But will he? And if so, how?

Thomas B. Edsall over at the Huffington Post argues that McCain's best shot—possibly his only shot—would be to become the anti-Bush candidate. That was what McCain had going for him in 2000, and today, I'd say the anti-Bush ground is far more fertile, even for a Republican. It's not the safest route to take, but considering that McCain's campaign has just all but melted down lately, the Arizona senator can't really afford safety right now.

I have to wonder, though, just how safe it would be for a Republican candidate not to turn his back on Bush. Conventional wisdom says that you've got to appease the Republican base by being nice to the president, but how wise is this? Bush's popularity is bottoming out at a shocking rate, and he's managed to infuriate a good number of his own party. The parallel I see here is with Lyndon Johnson, who was eligible to run for another term in 1968 and who was the presumptive Democratic nominee that year—until fringe candidate Eugene McCarthy surprisingly tied Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. After that, Democratic challengers came out of the woodwork, convincing Johnson that it would be best not to seek reëlection.

Sure, Bush isn't eligible for reëlection next year, but the principle of the "dangers" of running against the president remain the same. I believe that there's a treasure trove of votes out there for the Republican candidate who sees fit to run against George W. Bush. For a while I thought Chuck Hagel was going to be that candidate, but I don't get the feeling that Hagel's even running for president anymore.

Who's going to be the Republican who dares to criticize their sitting president? Anyone? Possibly no one will, in which case this will be a wasted opportunity, and I believe could well cost the Republicans the 2008 election. The bloodless calculation that you should speak no ill of a fellow Republican could really hurt the party, but if a candidate shows some independence, he might breathe some life into his own party. McCain has appeared independent before, and right now, with nothing left to lose, I think he might as well try to appear independent again. McCain subducted himself to the Bush administration for all these years and lost those credentials, so of all the potential Republican critics, it seems that, ironically, it would be riskiest for Bush's former critic to become his greatest critic. For McCain, turning on Bush is his best option—but sadly for McCain, that option will also fail.

George W. Bush destroyed McCain's credibility and his presidential campaign in 2000, and he's done that very same thing once again for 2008. The Straight Talk Express has been once again derailed.

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