Saturday, March 03, 2007

McCain: the honeymoon is so over

John McCain was once a media darling. The last time he ran for President, long ago and far away in 2000, the press couldn't restrain itself from slobbering over him.

Slobbering? Don't blame me, it's not my word. No lesser light than the august Haley Barbour (former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Bush supporter way back then) declared it to be the case, and former Senator Warren Rudman (McCain's campaign manager at the time) as well as WaPo columnist Mary McGrory, concurred that "slobber" well described the press attitude towards McCain.

It's like looking back at the loving courtship letters of a couple whose marriage ended up in the bitterness of divorce court. Here's Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of Newsweek at the time:

Yes, [the media] are totally in love with John McCain...He gives great access [to the press]. He gives great quotes. He's funny-he's teasing. He's a fellow subversive in some ways. And they're all sort of united against the establishment. And he's a great story.

(Interesting, by the way, that the press--or at least Evan Thomas--saw [sees?] itself as "subversive.")

So, what's happened to the budding romance? To be blunt, McCain--once so bright-eyed and cuddly--is past his pull date.

Seven subsequent years of sloshing around in DC have meant that, if elected, he'd be the oldest President to ever win. And the years have not aged him like a fine wine (kicking around in Congress rarely does). Some of his pet projects--such as the McCain-Feingold bill--have turned out rather disastrously. And now, to top it all off, he's saddled by being perceived as a sort of Bush Lite on the war in Iraq. It must be galling to him, since there didn't used to be that much love lost between McCain and Bush.

As Peggy Noonan wrote in yesterday's Opinion Journal, McCain's obstinate personality, combined with his support for the Iraq War, may have cost him in subtle ways, even (or perhaps especially) among Republicans, who:

...don't precisely want another W. for president, another man who seems just as convinced, stubborn, single-minded, invested.

I'm not so sure I agree with Noonan, but perhaps she's correct. I think it's important to remember that McCain's biggest support never really came from paleoconservatives; he was perceived long ago as a Republican who leaned more to the middle, and therefore appealed to moderates. And that position in the Republican Party has been taken over by a younger, fresher face: that of Rudy Giuliani.

The two have something in common that most of the other candidates lack: the public perception that they have personal courage. No, "perception" isn't quite the right word--"knowledge" is. Both have been tested under fire--in very different ways--and come through with valor.

McCain's test was much longer and harder (look here under "Vietnam" if you're not familiar with this part of McCain's history). No one can question his extraordinary personal heroism; it's probably the most salient feature of his biography. But it occurred in what's now, politically speaking, the distant past--and was, for the most part, out of the US public eye at the time. Therefore it doesn't seem as relevant as Giuliani's recent performance in the immediate post-9/11 era, a public demonstration of his leadership in the face of terrorism and the threat of chaos following the attack.

It seems that, in psychological terms, Americans nationwide bonded with Giuliani during a time of grave crisis. A person perceived as being an anchor in a ferocious storm, a cool head under pressure, and a reassuring presence in a time of instability engenders trust and affection. Whether or not you like Giuliani's politics, or approve of the way he's led his private life, or think he's an opportunistic SOB, there's still that core truth: he demonstrated extraordinary grit during one of the most difficult times in the life of our nation.

Giuliani's emotional honesty was part of it. He wasn't afraid to show sorrow, and he rose to heights of eloquence time and again in his speeches and eulogies of the time. In sum, he seemed sincere and emotional without ever becoming maudlin, while preserving and conveying a sense of strength. One of the traits Americans are looking for in a President right now seems to be leadership, and Giuliani showed that trait right after 9/11 in a manner that could be felt deep within the gut.

How can McCain compete? And the MSM, in time-honored fashion, which once upon a time jumped on his bandwagon en masse, has now jumped off in unison.

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