Saturday, December 15, 2007

John McCain: Confident and Ready

John McCain's got a great interview today over at the Wall Street Journal:

John McCain sits across the table from the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, fielding questions on everything from taxes to torture to terror. He's asked what surprised him the most about the behavior House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with regard to Iraq. His answer--"their lack of patriotism"--is of the characteristically impolitic kind that often defines his personality. Over the course of a 75-minute conversation, it's on display time and again.

For a candidate who was mostly written off by the media only six months ago, the senior senator from Arizona seems remarkably confident of his primary chances.

Mr. McCain is 71. But the tired, sluggish, former front-runner you may have read about was nowhere in evidence when the senator came to the Journal's offices yesterday. In his place was a combative and--yes--straight-talking candidate with no qualms about rising to a challenge or speaking his mind. In short, he looks once again like the spry 63-year-old who nearly knocked off front-runner George W. Bush eight years ago.

When asked whether he would tag Hillary Clinton as well with a "lack of patriotism," Mr. McCain does dial it down a notch. "Maybe 'lack of patriotism' is too harsh," he allows. "'Putting political ambitions ahead of the national interest' may be a more subtle way" of putting it. He then adds, with a chuckle, "And we all know how subtle I am."

Just how subtle comes across in expanding on Mrs. Clinton's stance on the war and on the surge. "She had that very clever line--I don't know who wrote it for her--that you'd have to suspend disbelief in order to believe that the surge is working. Well, you'd have to suspend disbelief that it's not now." And then, as if confronting her in a presidential debate, he addresses the absent senator from New York directly: "Do you still stand by that statement, Senator Clinton? Do you still believe you'd have to suspend disbelief to believe that this surge is working?"

Mr. McCain is almost as scathing about his own party's behavior in power as he is about Congress's current leaders. Of the Republican congressional majority that was voted out in 2006, he says: "We let spending get out of control. . . . And we would have won the 2006 elections if we had restrained spending. Our base didn't desert us because of the war in Iraq. Our base deserted us because of the Bridge to Nowhere. I'll take you to a town hall tomorrow and I'll say 'Bridge to Nowhere' and everyone in that room will know what I'm talking about. That bridge is more famous than the Brooklyn Bridge."

That version of the events of November 2006 is not universally shared, even within the GOP, but it does serve Mr. McCain's interests pretty well. He has been one of the most prominent and unapologetic supporters of the war in Iraq, even though he at times disagreed with the administration about tactics and strategy.

And he voted against the Bush tax cuts--even though he admits that they helped the economy in the midst of a recession. "We all know that [they helped]. Without a doubt. Without the slightest doubt. Absolutely."

Even so, he defends his opposition to them on the grounds, he told us, that Congress couldn't get spending under control. "I opposed the tax cuts because there was no spending restraint. . . . If we'd enacted spending restraints, we'd be talking about more tax cuts today. And to the everlasting shame and embarrassment of the Republican Party and this administration, we went on a spending spree and we didn't pay for it. . . .

And every time I called over to the White House and said, look, you've got to veto these bills, the answer was, 'We'll lose the majority, we'll lose this election, we'll lose the speaker.' Well, you know what happened."

The words "I told you so" don't quite pass his lips, but his sense of vindication is plain enough.

As for the tax cuts themselves, he now pledges that he would fight to make them permanent. "I will not agree to any tax increase," he says. And then once more for emphasis: "I will not agree to any tax increase."

Read the whole thing.

As readers know, I'm pulling for McCain (see here and here). I have some trouble with a couple of his issue positions (note, though, that his experiential opposition to the use of torture is hard to rebut), although I see him coming around on key issues of importance to the GOP's conservative base.

Some Republican partisans will never forgive him, of course, but the Arizona Senator is looking more competitive in New Hampshire, and a win there might create a bandwagon effect in later contests.


UPDATE: Fred Barnes over at the Weekly Standard's got a new piece on McCain's rebound, "McCain's Last Stand":

McCain sneers at the importance of Iowa, whose caucuses on January 3 are the first contest in the Republican presidential race. "If I don't finish in the top 50 in Iowa, I'll still stay in the race," he told reporters in South Carolina last week. In Iowa the next day, McCain went out of his way in a televised debate to denounce the federal subsidy for ethanol, a popular program in the state.
So the old McCain is back, the flippant, contrarian candidate who came close to defeating George W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000. And amazingly enough, after his campaign to be nominee in 2008 all but collapsed this summer, McCain is experiencing a rebirth. He now has a chance--an outside chance, at least--of winning the Republican nomination.

Things large and small in the campaign have been moving McCain's way. The war in Iraq has turned sharply toward victory now that President Bush has adopted the strategy McCain had been recommending for several years. This is McCain's best issue and now a distinct plus for his campaign. And the immigration issue, a poisonous one for McCain, has become less intense since his immigrant-friendly approach lost in the Senate last summer....

McCain is concentrating his campaign on New Hampshire, where "he's got to win," according to former senator Phil Gramm of Texas, who traveled with McCain last week. If Romney loses there, "he's out of the race," Gramm says. Then, adds McCain adviser Charles Black, McCain will win in Michigan and South Carolina and take command of the race.

"Deep in their hearts," Gramm says, "Republican primary voters know John McCain is the only great man running for president." Maybe, but McCain doesn't make it easy for them to vote for him.

To the delight of Republicans, he passionately defends the war in Iraq, favors restraining entitlements, and calls for cuts in government spending and elimination of earmarks. But he insists on stressing issues like global warming and strict limits on interrogation of terrorists, which are anathema to many Republicans. He regularly refers to illegal immigrants as "God's children," another irritant for some. And in farm state Iowa McCain declared he would "eliminate subsidies on ethanol and other agricultural products."

It's all part of the McCain package that's far more conservative than not and often unpredictable. In Inman [South Carolina], a man gave McCain a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, saying he'd done the same on an aircraft carrier off Vietnam decades ago.

There was no reason for McCain to comment on this, yet he did. He held up the pack and said there was good news and bad news. "I've not had a cigarette in 28 years," he said. "That's the good news. The bad news is I still want a cigarette." The best news for McCain, though, is that he once again has a shot at the Republican nomination.
I'm pulling for him!