Nothing is more bipartisan than bad judgment, though, as conservative-leaning pollster John Zogby proved when he said the idea of a Bush-McCain ticket now makes "a lot of sense." Maybe Zogby was heartened by another poll out last week, from Fabrizio McLaughlin. (Good Republican firm!, as Dubya might say.) Fabrizio showed that, although Bush would edge Gore 49-40, McCain would positively clobber him, 55-33. Obviously, McCain has an advantage among Democrats (he'd get a quarter of them, while Bush would get a 10th) and independents (he'd win them two-to-one, while Bush would struggle to break even). n Marry Bush's conservative principles to McCain's across-the-board appeal, and a McCain-Bush ticket would look invincible, no? 'Fraid not. McCain's embrace of a candidate who has commandeered the country's corrupt campaign-finance machine would drive his "idealistic" voters away in droves; Bush's embrace of a self-interested wacko who insults the religious values of Middle America for cheap political gain would repel his GOP regulars. If you remember the otherwise-useless Venn diagrams you were taught to draw in second grade, McCain and Bush would share an intersection of their vote-sets, rather than a union of them.
What was really stunning about the Fabrizio poll is that Republican voters, who now claim to be outraged at McCain's betrayal of their principles, would stick with McCain through hell and high water. Bush would get 83 percent of their votes, McCain 82. Which is reasonable: Aside from the former's being a moron and the latter's being a nut, there's little for Republicans to choose from between the two. Both favor a strong defense, both will hold the line on taxes but not cut them and both will do their level best to make believe they're not pro-choice.
The big difference is this: Except during FDR's reign, the rock-solid foundation of the Republican Party has always been the whitebread suburbanites who lie between the 40th and 80th percentiles, ideologically and sociologically. Thanks to a (not wholly inaccurate) perception that the Republican Party is a nest of yahoos, that huge middle-to-upper-middle band is now Clinton country. McCain would draw them back, and Bush would not. It's thus for sociological and not ideological reasons that, after several months of slightly preferring the moron to the lunatic, I have come around to slightly preferring the lunatic to the moron.
Schnur Thing What a sense of timing I have. This was the week that McCain proved himself a little too flaky to seriously challenge Bush over the long haul. He opened his week with an attack on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. The two of them, McCain said, "caused us to lose elections, lose support, and betray the entire message of the Republican Party." Exactly right. The Main Street, Rotary Club, anti-Communist backbone of the Republican Party, the 9-to-5ers delighted to be doing okay out of the stock market, are bound to be left ill at ease by Falwell's allegations that President Clinton was running Murder Inc. out of the White House, and Robertson's assertions that the international banking system is controlled by a shadowy group of "Illuminati."
But in the course of the week, McCain couldn't leave well enough alone. He referred to the two religious righties as "forces of evil." Why? What business of yours are these two creeps, now that you've written them out of the party? Where's the "forward-looking," "positive" campaign? Worse, McCain's continuing obsession with the religious right rendered his assumption that he could titrate the story onto the front pages of the major dailies inoperative. The New York Times ran the "evil" business above the fold, leading McCain's most high-profile endorser of the past week, the Family Research Council's Gary Bauer, to denounce him. At that point, McCain should have shown discipline and said, In for a penny, in for a pound. But he didn't. He backed off. He said, "Look, I'm not saying that they're forces of evil. I say they're wrong."
Then McCain, having learned nothing from the headway he made against George Bush in New Hampshire when Bush chickened out of two debates, chickened out of the biggest debate of the campaign himself. McCain couldn't debate in California prime time, he said (I mean, hell, it's only going to decide the election) because he had an absolutely rock-solid, unbreakable commitment in New York. (A commitment that had somehow slipped his mind when he accepted the California invitation weeks before.) This led his spokesman, Dan Schnur, to denounce his boss's stupidity in public. The next day, McCain sources announced off the record that Schnur was going to resign. They should have told Schnur about it, because he told the press, "If I'm leaving, it's definitely not by mutual decision." Then McCain reassured the press that, even though Schnur had not been fired, he was being rehired. How classy! How decisive! Then McCain panicked about being shut out of the debate and agreed to participate by remote?from St. Louis, not New York. How reformist! What a break from politics as usual!
The smartest thing anyone has said about McCain in the whole course of the campaign was something my friend Jim, a hard-left Democrat from Queens, told me about three months ago. "The really worrisome thing about McCain is that he was such a much more impressive person as a prisoner of war than he was as a spoiled flyboy getting drunk and getting laid all the time." This is kind of a Clinton problem: performing well under adversity, but only under adversity. "The time to worry about McCain," my New York lefty friend said, "is going to be when he starts doing well."
The Bennett-o-meter One way you could tell McCain was really having a tough week was by checking the Bennett-o-Meter. Bill Bennett was a proud Bush adviser for much of the winter, but in the days after McCain's 20-point drubbing of Bush in New Hampshire on Feb. 1, he proved to have little immunity against McCainmania. "McCain is the anti-Clinton. That's what I think is going on here," he told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. "Clinton is the subtext in this campaign." A week later, just as NBC's David Bloom started referring to him (erroneously) as a "McCain supporter," Bennett recovered his Bush-backing equilibrium enough to decide that Clinton wasn't the subtext of the campaign. With McCain running ads claiming he was less like Clinton than Bush, Bennett fumed, "I think the McCain ad is wrong. I think they should pull that ad... To compare George Bush to Bill Clinton is really ridiculous."
On Feb. 25, in the wake of McCain's victory in Michigan, Bennett thought the electability issue was decisive: "You can make the call right now that it is pretty clear that John McCain is a better bet for winning the presidency for the Republicans than George Bush," Bennett said. Bush, meanwhile, "looks like not only a conventional conservative but the worst kind of caricature, a liberal caricature, of what a conservative is." But McCain's attempts to avoid liberal caricature didn't gain much purchase with Virginia's electorate. And on March 1, when McCain attacked Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Bennett still wasn't happy. "This is rhetorical overkill not appropriate to a man running for president of the United States," he said.
Erie McCain's attacks on George W. Bush for being "anti-Catholic" are wholly cynical, of course. But Bush is trying to win back Catholics with the worst kind of race-hustling condescension. For Republicans as for Democrats, the only kind of ethnic politics anyone knows how to practice nowadays is the kind that came out of the civil rights era. It involves Bobby Joe Segregationist going to an historically black college and saying, "Y'know, when I was six years old, my father handed me his favorite book, Spiritual Meditations by Martin Luther King, and it changed my life..."
Bush thinks (did his father tell him this?) that all you have to do to pick up the Popish vote is wave a picture of John F. Kennedy in front of the fish-eating masses. (Maybe Dorothy Day or Francisco Franco, as the situation dictates.) Sure, there's plenty for a Republican to emulate in JFK: Reagan praised him as the first American president to try supply-side tax cuts, and John McCain's policy of "rogue state rollback" is the kind of thing JFK and his brother used to banter about during their discussions of "counterinsurgency."
But Bush claims he wants to emulate JFK's 1960 campaign. And from bought votes in the West Virginia primary to ballot shenanigans in Illinois, New York and Alabama in November, that was the single most corrupt presidential campaign of the last half-century, not excluding Nixon's in 1972. Bush alluded to his admiration during a debate. And speaking after a Catholic charities event in Cleveland (at, beautifully enough, the Fatima Family Center), Bush dismissed McCain as a hypocrite for having run a new negative phone campaign in Virginia. "That kind of politics needs to be set aside," Bush said, "That's the kind of politics that John F. Kennedy rejected in the 1960s."
Surely "rejected" is not the word Bush was looking for. He must have meant "practiced" or "embodied." Or maybe "honed to a fine art."