If he’s the nominee, I actually don’t think repairing relations with conservatives is going to be his biggest problem. His biggest problem is going to be the one that Romney has identified over the last few weeks – he doesn’t seem to care about economics enough to have developed and internalized a compelling message on it, and he isn’t a particularly credible messenger either. He may have a weakness on domestic policy as a whole. He has played a big role on some issues, but typically his interventions have not required a great deal of study. I’m not sure he can pull that off all year.
One irony of the talk-radio right’s antipathy to McCain is that despite all his years of deviationism, if you look at the issues he’s emphasized since comprehensive immigration reform blew up in his face last year, he’s actually hewed as closely as any of his rivals to the “back to basics” line that many movement conservatives have insisted (wrongly, in my view) represents the GOP’s best path forward in the wake of the ’06 debacle. Yes, his heretical views on climate change and sundry other issues have come up here and there, but for the most part, McCain’s been running as the candidate of victory in Iraq, porkbusting at home, and … well, not all that much else.
This isn’t a combination that will win the general election, I suspect, even if the Democrats put up Hillary against him. Minus the immigration bit, Pat Buchanan’s remark about how McCain’s message boils down “the jobs are never coming back, the illegals are never going home, but we’re gonna have a lot more wars” offered a preview of the Democratic attacks to come: “John McCain is a hero and a good man,” they’ll say, “but he doesn’t have a plan for the economy or health care, he supports tax cuts for the rich and spending cuts for your neighborhood, and he wants us to stay in Iraq for a hundred years and attack a few other countries besides.” Sounds like a pretty effective line to me.
Obviously there’s time for McCain to find something else to say about domestic policy. (And I have some suggestions, if anybody in his camp is listening.) But as Ramesh’s remarks indicate, his track record isn’t all that encouraging. In addition to issues that excite the base and nobody else, a successful Presidential campaign needs a mix of wedge issues and me-too issues, to divide the opposition on some fronts and co-opt its more popular ideas on others. (Bush’s wedge issues, for instance included the culture war – from the residue of Monica-gate to gay marriage – and the War on Terror, and his me-too issues included education reform and prescription drugs for seniors.) But save for his zeal for the Iraq debate, which barring unforeseen developments isn’t likely to cut the GOP’s way this year, McCain has shown a palpable discomfort with wedge issues over the years; on the “me-too” front, meanwhile, he’s frequently favored causes that play much better with, say, the Times editorial board than with the swing voter on the street.
His heterodox stance on climate change might be an exception to this rule; environmental regulation isn’t usually a major issue in national campaigns, but in the era of global-warming anxiety that may be about to change, and McCain is poised to reap some of the benefits. But in what’s shaping up to be a recession-year election, he needs much, much more. Policy matters less than people like me like to think, and the enormous reservoirs of good will that McCain enjoys, with the public and the media alike, will carry him a long way. (He’s going to do very well, I suspect, with some of the undecided voters Chris Hayes memorably wrote about after '04.) But policy does matter, and it's hard for me to see how what McCain has to offer at the moment – his pledges on porkbusting and extending the Bush tax cuts, and his record on campaign-finance reform and immigration – is going to get him to the White House.
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