Tuesday, September 19, 2006

So much for the pander strategy

Some quick hits on a busy day:

As I noted recently, John McCain has spent a lot of time this year recalibrating his image in order to curry favor with the conservative Republican activists who have virtual veto power over the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. But apparently the guy is incapable of pandering to the Republican right 24/7 – as evidenced by the fact that he refuses to support President Bush’s current attempts to loosen the anti-torture language in the Geneva Conventions. And now his stance threatens to land him in hot water with conservatives, most of whom are diehard Bush loyalists who might look askance at any ’08 candidate who has publicly defied the Decider.

During the 2000 primary season, Bush loyalists spread word that McCain was mentally unstable, courtesy of his stint as a POW in Hanoi. But once McCain surrendered and endorsed his rival, talk about his alleged nuttiness ceased. Now, suddenly, it is back again. On Fox News last night, former New York senator Al D'Amato told Bill O'Reilly that McCain is still nutty from his POW experience: "Bill, I give John McCain a pass on this (torture issue) only because I think he was so traumatized by the events that took place (in Hanoi), that he doesn’t even really want to, or is in a position to, consider the impact" of how his Geneva defense would harm the war on terror.

Meanwhile, McCain was roasted the other day in New Hampshire, the state that will hold the first GOP presidential primary; according to a front-page editorial in the Union Leader newspaper (a longtime barometer of the state’s conservative sentiment), McCain’s defiance of Bush and defense of the Geneva accords "are blocking our ability to gain from terrorist captives the vital information we need to fight a war in which the enemy strikes us here at home from multiple locations around the world…Can the nation afford a President McCain?"

But that was a tame assessment, when compared to the hue and cry from Rush Limbaugh, who is warning on the air that McCain’s behavior “is going to go down as the event that will result in us getting hit again, and if we do, and if McCain, et al., prevail, I can tell you where fingers are going to be pointed."

The Union Leader’s rebuke may not matter, because that newspaper’s clout has waned in recent years, and McCain is still popular in New Hampshire (where he clobbered Bush in the 2000 GOO primary). But South Carolina – which hosts the first southern primary, an event dominated by conservative voters – might be a problem. Katon Dawson, the state GOP chairman, told a reporter the other day, “Obviously the president is right on this issue. John McCain thinks he’s right. I think that people on the ground think (he’s) wrong.”

And many of those “people on the ground” are Christian conservatives who have long viewed McCain as soft on illegal immigrants, too liberal on same-sex marriage, and too permissive about stem-cell research. Now comes the torture standoff with Bush, which is prompting Christian conservative anger over McCain's refusal to engage in lockstep loyalty. Religious right leader Tony Perkins warns, “Maverick status is looked upon as a strength in Congress, but a maverick in the White House is not looked upon with great admiration from our folks.”

All told, conservative commentator William Kristol (a McCain fan in 2000) believes that McCain “has badly damaged his 2008 presidential chances.” Perhaps. There is a temptation to say that voter memories are short, but long experience prompts me to observe that the average conservative Republican activist has the memory of an elephant.


I noted here last Friday that some Republicans are seeing an upside to losing the ’06 congressional elections. Now some Democratic contacts are telling me that they, too, are playing the same game; in other words, they too see the upside of the Republicans retaining control of both the House and Senate. They just don’t want to say this publicly, with their names attached.

The advance spinners of a Democratic defeat see it this way: if the GOP keeps it narrow majorities and stays in charge, that would enable Democrats to run in ’08 as outsiders against an exhausted GOP governing establishment. Whereas if the Democrats win a chamber, they will have to shoulder some of the responsibility for whatever goes wrong, or simply doesn’t get done, during the next two years.

Under this scenario, it’s better for Democrats to inveigh in ’08 against a do-nothing GOP Congress than a do-nothing bipartisan Congress. And one Senate Democratic aide has gone on the record about this; Pete Giangreco, who works for Barack Obama, tells Washington reporter Chuck Todd that “coming up a few seats short keeps the hunger alive.”

If the losing party stages the happiest election-night celebration, I guess now we’ll know why.


I mentioned yesterday that Bush's push for flexible torture rules might pay off politically with the conservative voters who are crucial to the GOP's November prospects. Actions aside, Bush is also romancing those voters with his words. Last week, in an Oval Office sitdown with seven conservative journalists (who did their job by writing nice things; witness this love note), Bush riffed about the new faith-based fervor he is finding across the land -- what he calls a "Third Awakening" of religious devotion. This story is a week old, but it has been somewhat underreported in the mainstream press. Bush said:

“I’m not giving you a definitive statement — it seems like to me there’s a Third Awakening with a cultural change. And it would be interesting to get your observations if that is accurate or not accurate. It feels like it. I’m just giving you a reference point, if this is something you’re interested in looking at. It feels like it to me. I don’t have people coming in the rope line saying, ‘I’d like a new bridge, or how about some more highway money.’ They’re coming to say, ‘I’m coming to tell you, Mr. President, I’m praying for you.’ It’s pretty remarkable.”

For Christian conservatives in the GOP base, the term Third Awakening has special meaning. For many, it connotes (among other things) the return of Christ, and the final struggle of good versus evil in Jerusalem. Some Bush critics are upset about the president's words, and see them as evidence of dangerous faith-based policy-making. I'm not going there. I am merely pointing out the political utility of his words - that he intends them as a message of solidarity with the citizens whom he needs at the polls in November. He is willing to indulge their hopes for a religious transformation, even though his evidence is limited to the pre-screened people he meets in rope lines.