How does a "Know Nothing" economic warhawk candidate who happens to be despised by his own party's base convince enough Republican voters he is the most electable general election nominee? Is the answer as simple as GOPers adhering to their tradition of selecting the guy next in line? Or was he simply the strongest candidate in an extremely weak field?
I think it was a smart Machiavellian political calculation by conservative leaders. Facing a political climate dominated by a foreign policy fiasco and a domestic economy in shambles after nearly a decade of conservative governing, "movement conservatives" eventually realized the chances of Republican victory in November were remote. MSNBC talking head (and conservative former GOP Rep) Joe Scarborough has said on air, "Republicans won't admit it in public, but they are preparing for a landslide defeat to the Democrats this year." If this is truly the case, it raises the question: Is McCain a sacrificial lamb?
Think about what McCain at the top of the GOP ticket means:
- The party is "All In" on Iraq: As they were in the 2006 midterms, Republican electoral chances are intrinsically tied to the public's perception of the Iraq quagmire. Perhaps moreso this time around. This is not limited to McCain's campaign, but to all Republican candidates.
- The conservative base may stay on the sidelines: Despite the recent rallying of conservative talk radio hosts and pundits to McCain's side in the aftermath of the NY Times McCain lobbyist story, it remains unclear as to whether or not the grassroots conservatives will show up at the polls in November. These are the foot soldiers critical to fundraising, GOTV efforts and victory up and down the ballot.
- The loss of immigration as a wedge issue: Over the past two election cycles, GOP strategists have attempted to gin up the base (as well as blue-collar Reagan Democrats) with the specter of illegal immigration as an economic and cultural wedge issue. Despite its failure to produce GOP electoral victories in states from Arizona to Virginia, all signs were for the nativist rhetoric to continue through the 2008 campaign. McCain's partnership with Ted Kennedy (of all people!) on the failed effort to pass a comprehensive immigration reform compromise removes this issue as a central tenet of the Republican strategy.
- The End of Campaign Finance Reform: The recent news McCain is trying to escape the limitations of the public financing system must be delicious vindication for the conservatives who have long vilified McCain for his leadership role on this issue. Watching the champion of CFR find the limits placed on his candidacy by the legislation he co-authored must be sweetly ironic from the conservative viewpoint.
When (as many political strategists now anticipate) McCain goes down in flames in November the conservatives, led by Limbaugh, Ingraham, Hannity and the rest, will self-righteously proclaim, "We told you so! Republicans lose when they nominate a moderate! They can't win without the conservative base. Campaign finance reform's limits on free speech do hurt Republicans more than Democrats who have their allies at the New York Times and CBS providing free media and positive stories! Republicans ignored the biggest domestic problem facing America today - illegal immigration - and they paid a price for inaction." The chorus will be well-choreographed and deafening.
The last time the Democrats won in a landslide - 1964 - it was the conservative Barry Goldwater who was blamed for the GOP loss. The wingnut opinionmakers are hoping to flip the historical precedent by offering up the McCain effectively banishing the moderates from the party.
You may think the conservatives are too power-hungry to concede this year's election and relinquish control of the White House. But conservatives are not unlike the four-year old who runs from the kitchen after breaking the cookie jar and responds "Not me!" to his mother's question, "who made this mess?" Don't be surprised when they point their finger at the Democratic administration and yell, "It was them!"