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Jewish World Review March 7, 2000 /30 Adar I, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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What accounts for McCain's excesses? -- PICK YOUR POISON. As president, Bill Clinton gave us soap operas and scandal along with political acumen. If Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., gets elected, it looks like we'll get temper tantrums along with reform.

If it's Vice President Al Gore, we'll likely get pandering to interest groups as well as policy depth. And with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, R, there'll be a strange mix of compassionate intentions, a tin ear for intolerance, and passivity when attacked.

McCain has let his anger boil over the top in public at least four times within the past month, and there are other cases when it happened in private.

He didn't like it that Bush was pointing out the similarities between his tax plan and Gore's, so he let loose with an ad charging that Bush "twists the truth like Clinton." That was seen among Republicans as so excessive that McCain pulled the ad off the air.

When Bush beat him in the South Carolina primary, McCain delivered a bitter concession statement, then got angry when reporters questioned him about it.

And he didn't let it drop. The McCain campaign made nasty phone calls to Catholic voters in Michigan, strongly implying that Bush is anti-Catholic because he visited right-wing Bob Jones University, whose president, unquestionably, is a bigot.

McCain, who routinely promises that he will always tell voters the truth, first denied and then admitted that he had approved the phone scripts, then last Sunday tried Clintonesque definition-juggling to explain away the conflict.

And then on Monday, he issued his most savage blast yet, accusing Bush, by inference, of being as intolerant as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan -- an outrageous proposition.

McCain declared that Bush is a "Pat Robertson Republican" and then defined the Christian Coalition leader as being an "agent of intolerance" equivalent to Farrakhan, a notorious anti-Semite and anti-white demagogue.

Bush's offense -- which he's since apologized for -- was appearing at Bob Jones University without condemning its rule against interracial dating and its president's anti-Catholic rants.

That's evidence of Bush's insensitivity. And there is other evidence: his delay in distancing himself from World War II revisionist Pat Buchanan, and his failure -- which McCain shared -- to take a position on the Confederate flag controversy in South Carolina.

But it's ridiculous to think that Bush is either anti-Catholic or a bigot: His brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), is a Catholic married to a Hispanic, and Bush has gone out of his way to court Mexican-Americans in Texas.

Moreover, Bush is scarcely the only politician to have visited Bob Jones. McCain's top South Carolina backer, Rep. Lindsey Graham, R, received an honorary degree from there and only lately has criticized the school.

What accounts for McCain's excesses? Some allies say he is furious at scurrilous literature, e-mail and phone calls in South Carolina telling church-goers that he fathered illegitimate children and has a black child (his adopted daughter is actually from Bangladesh).

McCain's allies blame the character-assassination on the Bush campaign -- especially on former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed -- but they can't prove a link, nor has McCain directly charged Bush with spreading the dirt.

McCain also has expressed outrage at Robertson's characterizing former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., a McCain supporter, as a "vicious bigot" for criticizing the religious right, though Robertson's anti-McCain phone calls presumably were not coordinated with Bush.

Besides being bursts of temper, McCain's attacks are politically calculated -- and risky.

By targeting Robertson and Falwell, who are widely unpopular in secular America and whose political power is fading, McCain evidently believes he can build himself up among the moderates, independents and Democrats who he hopes will win him the presidency.

Polls indicate that McCain's popularity is building among voters overall, but sinking among Republicans. His religious attacks presumably will accelerate this trend, making him think at some point about a third-party "Bull Moose" run if he loses the GOP nomination.

Feisty, accessible, funny, often generous, and a war hero to boot, McCain is the beneficiary of overwhelmingly favorable press, but he also holds grudges when criticized.

McCain and his staff are boycotting the Fox News Channel (where I'm a contributor) and Fox News Sunday, aides say, because they don't like questions asked by hosts Tony Snow and Brit Hume. If McCain can be petty, Bush can be passive. He said after McCain thrashed him in New Hampshire that he would no longer allow himself to be "defined," but it's happening still.

He's being characterized as "moving right," even though his positions on issues haven't changed, as an "establishment insider" even though he's from Texas and -- by McCain -- as an "exclusionist."

Bush's inability to create a positive identity for himself could be damaging if he gets elected president and tries to sell a program against partisan opposition and press skepticism.

With McCain and Bush haggling over who's inciting religious division, however, the chances increase that Gore will get elected. If the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association, feminists, environmentalists, the gay rights movement and liberal civil rights groups end up deciding national policy, Republicans will have only themselves to blame.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


03/02/00: 'Debate' Proved Gore Is This Year's Best Gut-Fighter
02/29/00: Surprises! The 2000 GOP race is full of it
02/25/00: Voters want centrist in White House
02/23/00: Gore would hit McCain's record
02/15/00: Will negativity hurt McCain in S.C.?
02/10/00: How hard should Bush hit McCain?
02/08/00: Bush must retool his entire campaign
01/27/00: Could Gore beat Bush as Truman beat Dewey?
01/20/00: Big New Surplus Estimates Could Alter 2000 Politics
12/21/99: Bush improves, everyone panders
12/16/99: Prospects improve for campaign reform
12/14/99: Riots raise free trade as 2000 issue
12/10/99: Gore won GOP 'debate' in N.H.
12/07/99: Election pits Bush cuts vs. Medicare boost
12/03/99: Can race be a constructive issue in 2000?
11/19/99: White House race may be best in decades
11/16/99: Where is Bush on health care fight?
11/11/99: Will TV stop profiteering from politics?
11/09/99: Is GOP isolationist, or just partisan?
11/04/99: Gore, Bradley Run Opposite Races On Style, Substance
11/01/99: GOP, Clinton could reach deal swiftly
10/27/99: Bush to fight 'culture wars' -- positively
10/21/99: Porter, Mack: heroes on medical research
10/19/99: Gore scores among party big shots, but polls go South
10/14/99: Bush critiques could help GOP Congress
10/12/99: Congress can save health care from ruin
10/07/99: Will gun-control cause the GOP to shoot itself in the foot?
10/05/99: Gore moves: Desperate but necessary
10/01/99: Fox, Armstrong make case for NIH
09/28/99: Dems' race brightens Bush's chances
09/23/99: East Timor deflates `Clinton Doctrine'
09/21/99: Buchanan v. Bush? Yeah right
09/17/99: Candidates turn attention to poverty
09/15/99: Bush's education problem
09/09/99: Budget makes 2000 an `issues' election
09/07/99:Airport rage increases, with good reason
09/02/99: U.S. future up for grabs in 2000
08/31/99: U.S. Capitol needs visitor's center -- soon
08/24/99: Will 2000 be the year of the foreign crisis?
08/19/99: Neither party has upper hand for '99
08/17/99: Ford gets freedom medal one month early
08/12/99: There's time to catch Bush, say Gore aides
08/10/99: Rudy, Hillary try much-needed makeovers
08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
08/02/99: Pols blow fiscal smoke on budget surplus
08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

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