A Winning Formula: Let McCain be McCain

Politics & People, by Albert R. Hunt, Washington Bureau Chief, The Wall Street Journal

February 18, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

John McCain, the Republican that many Democrats would least like to face in the 2000 presidential race, faces huge hurdles in winning the nomination: He's not well known, has antagonized politically potent conservatives, is hot tempered and is a favorite of the Washington press corps.

But the biggest obstacle is Iowa, where the first major nominating contest will take place in less than a year. The Iowa caucuses, which place a premium on organization, ideological fervor or geographical proximity, is candidate McCain's worst nightmare.

Not surprisingly, there is a raging debate inside the McCain campaign whether to skip Iowa altogether. Top advisors note the Arizona senator's shortcomings there and recall other promising GOP candidates – Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm among them – who collapsed after mediocre showings in Iowa.

Iowa is a caucus where the committed reign. Voters trek out on a cold Monday evening to over 2,000 schools, churches or firehouses for several hours. New Hampshire, by contrast, with a population that is less than half of Iowa's, had more than twice Iowa's turnout in its 1996 GOP presidential primary. Other candidates have lined up scores of organizers by now; the Arizona Republican has virtually none. The religious right, whose leaders despise John McCain, has a disproportionate influence, turning over 40% of the participants to the last GOP Iowa presidential caucus.

But as difficult as it may be, not to run in Iowa would be a death knell for Mr. McCain or any other presidential aspirant. The state doesn't have a record of picking presidential nominees, but it effectively winnows out mere aspirants from the real contenders. The first three or four finishers in the Hawkeye State will live to compete in New Hampshire eight days later. The rest can fold up their tents; if someone doesn't compete he or she will be ceding the contender spot to someone else.

That is crucial for Mr. McCain because New Hampshire – with its devotion to fiscal discipline, patriotism and moderate social conservatism – is tailor-made for this prisoner-of-war hero. If he places in Iowa, he would have a real shot at winning New Hampshire and becoming one of the finalists for the GOP nomination.

But how to crack Iowa? The answer may be straightforward, even simple: Let McCain be McCain. More than any of his presidential rivals, Mr. McCain's willingness to take on sacred cows has demonstrated an independence and integrity rare in American politics. If he runs a conventional race, his more conventional rivals will do it much better.

But to go into Iowa and assail agricultural subsidies, like ethanol, and the powerful religious-right leaders would be natural for this maverick. It would separate him from the pack and could well energize more than a few Republicans.

To take on subsidies for ethanol, a corn-based fuel additive supposedly sacrosant in this farm state, may be surprisingly good politics as well as policy. There is only on reason taxpayers fork over $770 million a year for ethanol subsidies: the huge campaign contributions to both parties from Archer Daniels Midland Co., the prime beneficiary of the subsidy. This is a classic illustration of why the corrupt system of financing campaigns needs an overhaul, a deeply held McCain position that antagonizes many GOP leaders.

To confront the leaders of the religious right is dicier. But they are going after him anyway. Both Pat Robertson and anti-abortion activists have vowed to undercut Mr. McCain – despite his consistent anti-abortion record – because he favors campaign-finance reform, showing the true color of these self-styled moral leaders.

In Iowa, as elsewhere, most citizens including a good many Republicans, are contemptuous of the narrow-minded intolerance of Pat Robertson and his ilk. In a parody of himself, Jerry Falwell now suggests that "Teletubbies," the popular children's TV show, is a gay plot.

Yet the conventional wisdom is that the Christian right is the party's base and it's suicidal to oppose them. A look at some neighboring heartland states suggest otherwise. In Kansas, moderate Republicans soundly rejected a religious-right challenge to a popular GOP governor, and Vince Snowbarger was one of only five House Republican incumbents defeated last November, in part because of his ties to the Christian right. In Nebraska, the poster boy of the religious right, Rep. Jon Christensen, finished a dismal third in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

There are more than a few mainstream Republicans who have dropped out of participating in political events like Iowa because they're overwhelmed, even intimidated, by religious zealots. Yet, it's a safe bet that none of the other presidential hopefuls will give voice to these concerns; count on the George W. Bushes, Liddy Doles and Lamar Alexanders to follow Steve Forbes in pandering to these activists.

Moreover assailing the narrowness of the leaders need not alienate all of the followers, most of whom are cetainly not intolerant bigots. In 1992, Bill Clinton symbolically took on the black entertainer, Sister Souljah, annoying some African American leaders, but never losing the committed support of the rank-and-file voters.

Mr. McCain has the credibility and the character to do this effectively. Moreover, it would highlight the uniqueness of his candidacy in the GOP field. "I disagree with John McCain on a number of issues but what attracts me to him is his independence," notes conservative South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford. "That is the rarest of commodities in politics these days."

The man who spent 5 1/2 brutal years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp embodies independence and courage. That was brilliantly captured in this month's A&E Biography on Mr. McCain. It is one of the most powerful documentaries about a politician ever, even more so because it shows warts as well. A quarter-century ago, his beer-guzzling, skirt-chasin, playboy ways caused the breakup of his first marriage. Yet there is his former wife, Carol, a woman of real courage in her own right, on TV talking about her former husband's virtues.

John McCain can't get to the White House without going through Iowa, a venue where he barely registers today. He has a chance to change that and shake up the Republican Party – for the better – in the process.