Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More McCain: Why the Comeback?

I'm very pleased that John McCain is getting the attention he deserves as the one to beat for the GOP presidential nomination. The Wall Street Journal explains why the Arizona Senator's making a comeback:

Endorsing John McCain for President yesterday, Joseph Lieberman stressed that his Senate colleague would always elevate his country above his party. Coming from a man who was excommunicated by Democrats for his views on Iraq, this was a fitting sentiment--and it may also explain why Mr. McCain seems to be staging something of a primary resurgence.

As recently as January, Mr. McCain was the putative Republican favorite, but his support collapsed amid his campaign mismanagement and the GOP's immigration meltdown. Now primary voters seem prepared to give him a second look in an unstable race. Mike Huckabee has galloped to a lead in Iowa, bruising Mitt Romney, though without much scrutiny of the former Arkansas Governor's record. Fred Thompson has yet to offer a compelling rationale for his candidacy. Rudy Giuliani for a time defied political gravity based on his New York reform leadership, but he has been hurt by questions about his judgment and ethics.

Re-enter Mr. McCain, who is nothing if not a known GOP commodity. One of his problems has been that to some Republicans he is too well known. This is the John McCain who was adored by the media for opposing tax cuts, favoring limits on free speech as part of "campaign finance reform," and embracing a cap and trade regime for global warming. This is the John McCain who was also endorsed this weekend by the Des Moines Register and Boston Globe, two liberal papers that are sure to endorse a Democrat next year.

Our own differences with Mr. McCain have mainly been over economics, and especially taxes. Despite record surpluses in 2000, the Senator refused to propose tax cuts as part of his Presidential bid--one reason he lost to George W. Bush. He also opposed the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, often using the language of the left.

Mr. McCain paid a visit to our offices last Friday, and he now says he supports extending the Bush tax rates, even admitting they helped the economy emerge from recession. "Without a doubt. Without the slightest doubt," he told us. "Absolutely."

In a spirited exchange, Mr. McCain justified his previous opposition by arguing that there was no discipline on spending. "To the everlasting shame and embarrassment of the Republican Party and this Administration," he noted, "we went on a spending spree and we didn't pay for it." That's true enough, and in an ideal world tax cuts would be offset dollar-for-dollar by spending cuts.

But in practice Congress will never do so, which means Republicans are left to be tax collectors for the welfare state. The experience of the Reagan and Bush years is that tax cutting has its own economic benefits, and that revenues will rebound far more quickly than the critics claim. We asked Mr. McCain what he'd do when faced with a Democratic Congress that insists he raise taxes in 2009, and he replied that he'd say "No" and cite JFK's successful tax-cutting in the 1960s. This is intellectual progress, and we trust such McCain advisers as Phil Gramm and Tim Muris will conduct further tutorials.

More than economics, Mr. McCain has two main strengths in this GOP race: His record on national security, and the belief that he can reach enough non-Republicans to assemble a viable center-right coalition and defeat Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in what could be a difficult GOP year. Mr. Lieberman's endorsement is notable because it reinforces both of those claims. Mr. Lieberman had to win GOP and independent voters to keep his Connecticut Senate seat after he lost the Democratic primary, and Mr. McCain won in New Hampshire in 2000 with the help of independents who could vote in the GOP primary. He'll need their support again this year.

The two men have also been stalwarts on Iraq, even when it became unpopular, and despite paying a political price for it. Mr. McCain also argued persuasively for the changes in strategy now known as the surge. In his Friday visit with us, the Senator spoke with authority on all manner of foreign policy. He is a hawk in the Reagan mold on Iran, the larger Middle East and overall defense spending.

Our guess is that this national security record is the main reason for his own political surge. With the success of General David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, even some conservatives have taken to arguing that foreign and military policy will become less important in 2008. We doubt it. This is still a post-9/11 country, and voters know they will be electing a Commander in Chief in a world that is as dangerous as it was during the height of the Cold War. In an election against any Democrat next year, Mr. McCain would have little trouble winning the security debate.

See also some of my earlier McCain posts here, here, here, and here.


UPDATE: Captain Ed weighs-in on the McCain comeback:

In a strange way, the elements of the primary campaign have conspired to give McCain a second shot at the nomination. He fixed his campaign problems in time to maintain his national standing as a candidate. Meanwhile, while Republicans still have issues with his policies and track record, the same can be said about all of his competitors. Critics have lambasted Huckabee's record in Arkansas, dinging his momentum, while the conservative base has continued to have issues with Giuliani's pro-choice social centrism. Romney has tried to overcome policy shifts and past rhetoric, but still has not quite built trust with the voters.

Can McCain take advantage of that? He has admitted error on two key positions that generated considerable ire among Republicans: tax cuts and immigration. His position on cuts now unreservedly recognizes the economic boost that Bush's reductions created, and says he will defend them as President. That's at least as believable as Romney's reversal on abortion, although a President has a much greater effect on taxes than on abortion, making it pragmatically much more critical.

On immigration, the sale will almost certainly not succeed. As late as this summer, McCain tried forcing through a reform package that infuriated conservatives. He now says that he "heard the message" and will pursue border security first before turning his attention to the status of illegal immigrants. Had he done that this summer, he may have found some credibility -- but that opportunity has passed. The same is true with campaign-finance reform, where some conservatives and liberals find agreement that the effect has been to curtail political speech and not corruption. In this case, McCain remains politely defiant.

McCain has been magnificent on the war and on spending. He has bucked his own party on what turned out to be a poor strategy in post-war Iraq and fought hard for the White House when they finally took his advice. For porkbusting, one could not find a better candidate, one who has already fought in the trenches against the thinly-veiled bribery system that has gripped Congress.

Those qualities have rightly kept him in contention -- but will they be enough for him to prevail? Only if Republican voters decide that the other top-tier candidates have more negatives than McCain. If GOP voters perceive him as the most reliable conservative, one who can hold the Republican big tent together, he has a fighting chance. Unfortunately, McCain's record as a "maverick" will make that conclusion very difficult to reach.
Only if the "other top-tier candidates have more negatives than McCain?"

Perhaps, although maybe McCain's record as a straight-talker should be taken into consideration now. If he says he's seen the light on immigration, he's not one to pull your leg.

In any case, The Griper made similar arguments about McCain's maverick streak. The whole debate's showing exactly what a political campaign should be all about: evaluating the candidates and sizing up the most qualified.