McCain Continues to Prove Himself the Enemy of the Grassroots

It's clear that John McCain has avoided the post-defeat travails of Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole. And it's perhaps a testimony to McCain's political skills that he's maneuvered so well back into the top-tier of campaign politics. Or perhaps it's also a glimpse of the media's love affair with the moderate Republican "maverick" who will again be expected to rein in the right's alleged "noise-machine extremists."

And if it's more of the latter, what we're really seeing in this month's GOP machinations is a preview of the Republican Party's "post-anointed" nomination politics. As many have argued before, the GOP tends to nominate candidates who are next-in-line-to-the-throne. George H.W. Bush was a two-term VP under President Ronald Reagan in 1988. Bob Dole, who was 72-years-old during the 1996 campaign, beat out younger candidates who attacked him as "lacking fresh vision." And McCain followed the 1996 model almost perfectly. He turned 72 on the eve of the GOP's 2008 national convention, and like Dole, he would have entered the Oval Office as the oldest president in American history.

Republicans are, of course, looking at a young crop of candidates in 2012. Mitt Romney, at 62, is practically a geriatric among his likely challengers for the nomination. Mike Huckabee's 54 and Tim Pawlenty's 48. Sarah Palin is a spry 45-years-old.

But it's ideology more than age when we really get down to basics. The Palin vs. Schmidt battle is a contest over vision, and by implication so is Palin vs. McCain, despite age contrasts. With Sarah Palin, there's no other figure in American politics who gets the conservative juices gushing as well. She's the rightroots' towering Thrilla from Wasilla. But some expect the baseline popularity of Sarah Palin to be a problem nationally. As political scientist Joshua Tucker asked recently, "Are Republicans Now Officially a Southern Party?" The implication is that the most powerful political currents in the Republican Party today are likely short of a near-majoritarian consensus outside of the southern United States -- give or take a few states in the Great Plains and the Rockies.

The party's appeal lies in populations both fiscally and socially conservative -- folks who are not well represented outside of traditional GOP demographic and geographic strongholds. So while Sarah Palin may very well win her party's nomination in 2012, would she actually be a strong national competitor in the general election?

Ronald Brownstein addressed the problem more generally last week in his essay "A Fleeting GOP Boost In 2010?" As Brownstein notes:

In the 2012 presidential election, the young and minority voters central to Obama's coalition are likely to return in large numbers. The risk to the GOP is that a strong 2010 showing based on a conservative appeal to apprehensive older whites will discourage it from reconsidering whether its message is too narrow to attract those rapidly growing groups.

As always, polling trends are essentially snapshots in time, and history shows that campaigns really matter. A lot can happen in the 27 months between now and January 2012, and in the 37 months until November of that year. Many traditionally younger and progressive constituencies may well join with their older counterparts in rejecting growing Democratic incompetence and the grating narcissism of President Barack Obama. And if that's the case, predictions like Steve Schmidt's above may be nothing more than long-forgotten water under the bridge.

And John McCain, amid efforts to rescue the party, may indeed be finally put out to ideological pasture.