Thursday, July 05, 2007

The downsizing of John McCain

The strategists in charge of John McCain’s presidential campaign hosted a conference call with political journalists the other day, and this was their message: “We feel good…We obviously feel confident…We feel confident about our ability to wage this campaign…We feel confident that we’ll be able to do what is necessary to be competitive…We have great confidence in his ability…As I said earlier, we feel confident…We have confidence in our plan.”

Did they mention that they feel confident?

Translation: They’re seriously worried that McCain’s presidential bid might have the same trajectory as a tech stock during the dot-com crash. Or a Detroit automaker during the ‘80s. Or a chain-owned newspaper during the Internet era.

Bullish talk can’t hide the fact that McCain’s ‘08 quest is in deep trouble.He raised less money during the second quarter of this year ($11 million) than he did during the first quarter ($13 million), and he has less money in his coffers now ($2 million, which is a pittance) than he did three months ago ($5 million). By contrast, Rudy Giuliani currently says he has $18 million in the till. The McCain strategists insisted during the conference call that his financial performance is “a remarkable achievement” that “makes us proud,” but nobody really believes that. Campaign aides have to talk that way, because they don’t want to put any more blood in the water – especially when the sharks are already circling.

Still, it was impossible to hide the grim news: “In order for us to have the money necessary to effectively communicate John McCain’s message, you know, we need to downsize our efforts and/or downsize our operation.” So they’ve laid off as many as 50 staffers (although they won’t officially confirm that number), cut the wages of the remaining staffers. Terry Nelson, a top McCain operative who has agreed to work for free, said simply, “We confronted reality, and we dealt with it.”

The “reality,” he said, is that “we face a difficult fundraising environment.” That’s an understatement. McCain’s biggest problem – although his people would never frame it this way – is that his candidacy has lost its raison d’etre. He is too liberal for the GOP’s conservative base, and too conservative for the independents who once lauded him as a “maverick.” No wonder he’s not raising enough money.

Even the McCain strategists acknowledged the other day that his longstanding support for immigration reform – most notably, a path to citizenship for illegal aliens – has turned off conservative donors. Nelson said that McCain’s futile battle for an immigration reform bill, during May and June, “was the right decision for our country (but) it also affected the campaign’s ability to raise money.” Strategist John Weaver insisted that McCain ultimately will be “rewarded” for taking his principled stand “when the voters start tuning in,” but I am skeptical. Conservative primary voters have very long memories, especially on the immigration issue; indeed, they still haven’t forgiven McCain for voting against the Bush tax cuts six years ago.

Nor have they forgiven McCain for his campaign reform law that barred special interest groups from spending their money to influence elections (anti-abortion groups, in particular, were furious). But McCain has already been rebuked on that issue as well. The U.S. Supreme Court, led by President Bush’s conservative appointees, struck down those provisions in a June ruling.

So on what issue can McCain be expected to recoup? Weaver, the strategist, had an answer for that: “He’ll be leading the debate within our party and within the country on the situation in Iraq.”

John McCain is going to lead the national debate on the Iraq war? That would be like asking Robert Downey Jr. to lead the debate over drug use.

McCain’s deep investment in that war might help him gain some traction with conservative hawks; maybe they’ll write him a few checks. But his staunch support for Bush’s debacle is further evidence that his “maverick” creds are a fiction. Most swing-voting independents, having long soured on both the war and Bush’s stewardship, aren’t going to give McCain a dime for his “principled” defense of our Iraq misadventure. Weaver insisted during the conference call that “John McCain is the ‘change’ Republican candidate in a ‘change’ election cycle,” but, on the most crucial issue facing America, McCain is the antithesis of change.

In fact, if the desire for “change” is measured in money, McCain and his Republican rivals are at a distinct disadvantage. It speaks volumes that the top two Democrats, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, together raised far more money during the second quarter ($60 million) than the top three Republicans combined (Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and McCain - $42 million). It’s impossible for the GOP strategists to spin that one away.


By the way, how does McCain think he can "lead" the debate on Iraq, when even Republican senators are bailing out on Bush and his enabler, McCain? Last week, it was Dick Lugar and George Voinovich. Earlier today, it was Pete Domenici. In remarks on his home turf, the New Mexico senator said this: "I have carefully studied the Iraq situation, and believe we cannot continue asking our troops to sacrifice indefinitely while the Iraqi government is not making measurable progress to move its country forward. I do not support an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or a reduction in funding for our troops. But I do support a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to coming home."


Another great moment in Bush administration flackery, from today's White House press briefing. Spokesman Scott Stanzel was at the podium.

Q: "Scott, is Scooter Libby getting more than equal justice under the law? Is he getting special treatment?"

A: "Well, I guess I don't know what you mean by 'equal justice under the law.'"