Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2000 / 11 Adar I, 5760
This is how much things have changed in three of the most interesting weeks in modern presidential politics: Now only John McCain can do what George W. Bush three months ago seemed poised to do--win quickly. This is how high the stakes are Saturday in South Carolina: If Bush loses, his $69 million campaign probably will quickly disappear, leaving no more lasting mark on American politics than an oar leaves on water.
If McCain wins on Saturday he almost certainly will win again on Tuesday in Michigan, where he already is ahead, and in Arizona. So heading into the 13 primaries of March 7, Bush would be 0 for 4 in primaries McCain has contested. The rest of the primaries might suddenly become superfluous. If Bush wins South Carolina narrowly, this could be a long slog, conceivably to that bellwether and mother of presidents, Montana.
South Carolina is, for Bush, the contest without excuses. There he has virtually every advantage--from a deep reservoir of affection for his father, to legions of social conservatives, to time to tell his story, to the absence of Steve Forbes. Every advantage, save one: Thirty states have Republican governors and 26 have endorsed Bush, but not until he gets to Michigan and Arizona will he have Republican governors on his side, for whatever that is worth.
Which may not be much in a state like Michigan, where anyone can vote for any candidate. The proliferation of such primaries does give candidates a chance to demonstrate in spring something essential to winning in autumn--the ability to draw support beyond the party base. But such primaries have the considerable cost of further reducing parties as meaningful institutions capable of organizing political discourse and preventing a politics of unbearable lightness.
Indeed, such primaries are part of the disparagement of political parties, a disparagement with antecedents in early 20th-century populism and progressivism. Many populists distrusted the two major parties as tools of large interests working against "the people." Many progressives distrusted parties as altogether too close to "the people" and their turbulent passions. This was at a time when Freud, crowd psychologists and World War I propaganda had made the very idea of the public's "opinion" problematic and hard to respect, and the city manager form of government--government by nonpartisan "experts"--was a progressive cause.
One of the strengths of his candidacy is that he can state his goal in seven words: "Get the special interests out of Washington." The media boys and girls on the McCain bus have not been, shall we say, overbearing in their attempts to get him to answer some pertinent questions, such as:
By what principle does he distinguish "special" interests from others? Or does he think it is a misfortune that any "interests" are active in Washington? When the "special" interests are out of Washington, who will be there? Just McCain and the rest of the political class, without the nuisance of people interested in what government is doing to their interests?
That would certainly accord with McCain's yearning for tranquillity, a yearning expressed in his desire for increased government regulation of campaigning, whereby government would curtail the amount of political speech and regulate issue advocacy by independent groups. He also wishes, wistfully, that it were constitutional to ban all negative advertisements about members of the political class.
Still, McCain's masterful campaign has tapped into the nation's strongest
desire at the end of the Clinton era, the desire to take a shower. Bush's
emulation testifies to McCain's insight. But it is hilarious to hear the son of a
president and the governor of the second-largest state making a
"more-of-an-outsider-than-thou" campaign against McCain, the 18-year
legislator and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, whose own
"outsider" pretensions call to mind Oscar Levant's quip that he
remembered Doris Day before she was a
02/10/00: McCain's Distortions
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