McCain Continues to Prove Himself the Enemy of the Grassroots

The timing was impeccable. On the day after HarperCollins released the cover photo for Going Rogue -- Sarah Palin's highly anticipated autobiography -- Steve Schmidt, John McCain's former chief campaign advisor, predicted that if Palin were to win the 2012 GOP nomination, "we would have a catastrophic election result." It was Schmidt, a veteran Republican strategist, who first advised Senator McCain to select Palin as his running mate in 2008. And it was Schmidt who first criticized Governor Palin within the McCain camp as "going rogue." Asked how Palin's book might describe their relationship during the election, Schmidt suggested that perhaps he was the "anti-rogue in the running of the campaign."

Schmidt's comments provide a nice backdrop to a recent report at Politico ("McCain's Mission: A GOP Makeover.") It turns out that the Arizona senator has been positioning himself as a major power broker within the Republican Party hierarchy. He is identified in the article as the party's titular head; and the erstwhile presidential nominee has been raising money for moderate GOP candidates and hitting the campaign trail for pragmatic allies. As noted in the article:

"I think he’s endorsed people with center-right politics because he has an understanding that the party is in trouble with certain demographics and wants to have a tone that would allow us to grow,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is McCain’s closest friend and ally in the Senate.

“At a time when our party is struggling and has a lot of shrill voices and aggressive voices, he’s one that can expand our party,” said John Weaver, a longtime McCain friend and strategist.

This meme of McCain's reemergence as the GOP's elder statesman and centrist savior is not likely to go down well among grassroots conservatives. As Bruce McQuain has noted, with reference to Schmidt's comments above:

Good lord … that’s like Jimmy Carter wanting to reshape the Democratic Party. McCain stands for everything that is wrong with the GOP today. If ever there was someone who found the wrong message for presenting the GOP to the voters, it was John McCain. And the economic problems the country has gone thorough since his defeat have only made his message less acceptable. Schmidt can bellyache all he wants about Sarah Palin, but without her McCain’s election night returns would have been much more dismal than they were.

Yes, and if McCain continues to elbow his way back to the GOP's center stage, it's not Jimmy Carter who'll be cited by the bloodthirsty hounds of the right-wing base, but Michael Dukakis.

That is to say, McCain might be more loved by activists if he'd follow the post-election model of the former Massachusetts governor and failed Democratic presidential candidate. Dukakis was exiled from the ranks of the Democratic Party following his "snatch-defeat-from-the-jaws-victory" loss to George H.W. Bush in 1988. (Dukakis held a 17-point lead in the presidential horse race following the Democratic National Convention that year.)

Within a few years, the former governor was teaching public policy seminars at UCLA, and his biggest post-limelight victory came in 2006 as an anti-"apron-parking" activist in his Westwood neighborhood. Perhaps that's more respectable than his 1996 GOP counterpart Bob Dole. The former Senate majority leader and 1996 presidential nominee was reduced to warning "easy, boy," while hawking Pepsi Cola in a Britney Spears Superbowl ad in 2001.

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.