Yesterday's New York Times included a brief but useful summary by John Broder about Sen. John McCain's progress in reinventing himself from the brave maverick of GOP politics into the Chosen One of Republican elites, including many key veterans of George W. Bush's two campaigns.
I've long been a skeptic about McCain's ability to propitiate the conservative ideologues that still own the Republican Party without losing the reputation that would make him a formidable nominee in 2008. But he's off to a pretty good start, given his consistent front-running status in early GOP '08 polls; his love-fest with prominent Bushies; and the high esteem he still enjoys from many mainstream media types. And lest we forget, the combination of very high and relatively positive name ID and insider backing is what lifted McCain's former nemesis, George W. Bush, to the nomination in 2000.
Broder's summary of McCain's pivot does not mention one factoid that the photo accompanying it illustrates: McCain yukking it up with attendees of the Iowa State Fair. He famously skipped the Iowa Caucuses in 2000, after conspicuously disrespecting the Ethanol Subsidy that ranks just behind the State Fair's Butter Cow sculpture as Iowa's Most Sacred Cow. McCain has now flip-flopped on ethanol, and is spending a lot of time in Iowa.
McCain's pivot, of course, most depends on the panic of Republicans who see the White House slipping away in 2008, and figure only a "maverick" like the Arizonan can save their bacon. The same underlying dynamic may doom a McCain general election candidacy, and thus his "electability" appeal, particularly if he continues to flip-flop on domestic issues, while championing the Bush administration's disastrous course of action in Iraq.
And even if McCain goes into the presidential cycle as the clear GOP front-runner, there's no question many conservative movement types will continue to cast about for an alternative. At one point, Sen. George Allen of VA looked like a strong possibility for the Anybody-But-McCain (ABM) effort, but his sparse positive qualifications are clearly being overwhelmed by his current troubles. Right now the big debate about Allen is whether he's a racist obnoxious jerk, or an equal-opportunity obnoxious jerk. No less an authority than Charlie Cook is already saying Allen's presidential star has fatally fallen, and for that matter, Georgie is now in danger of losing his Senate seat.
At present, the insider buzz about GOP alternatives to McCain revolves around Mitt Romney of Massachussets. Aside from the improbability of the Right readily embracing a guy once thought of as a northeastern moderate, whose most notable recent accomplishment was signing a quasi-universal health insurance bill, there's the Mormon Issue. Last year Amy Sullivan wrote an important article examining probable conservative evangelical concerns about a Mormon candidate, but the problem could go deeper, since the unusual nature of LDS doctrines could discomfit some Catholics, mainstream Protestants and secular conservatives as well as evangelicals.
The real darkhorse for the ABM mantle remains Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Expect a boomlet to form around him at some point in the near future. --