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Michigan Lessons
by Lionel E. Deimel

The victory of John McCain yesterday in the Michigan Republican presidential primary offers interesting lessons for the Republican Party, though ones likely to be ignored. Certainly, George W. Bush, who was speaking today of non-Republicans trying to “hijack” the nomination, wants his fellow Republicans to avoid drawing some obvious conclusions.

Let’s stipulate at the outset that there is something slightly bizarre about allowing outsiders to vote on the nominee of your party. “Crossover” primaries such as those of South Carolina and Michigan continue to exist, however, presumably with the blessing of the Republican Party, which is free to select its nominee by other means. Having established the rules, however, the party must take its chances with how people behave under them—one small lesson of the most recent primary worth contemplating.

The problem, of course, is that George W. Bush, who lost the primary, received the votes of most of the Republicans who went to the polls. John McCain, who actually did rather poorly among registered Republicans, was heavily favored by independent and Democrat voters. What are we to make of this?

Before the formal candidate-selection process began, it was clear that Bush was the overwhelming choice of leading (and, apparently, following) Republicans, largely because of his Mule reputed electability. Results in New Hampshire and Michigan should cause Republicans to rethink this position. The Republican Party has become a party of the right, if not of the far right; who can imagine its hard-come adherents voting for Bill Bradley or Al Gore because their own candidate is John McCain, rather than George W. Bush? Despite Bush’s hints that McCain is some variety of liberal, all objective evidence suggests otherwise. On issues other than campaign finance reform—perhaps a significant exception—the average Democrat is unlikely to be much impressed by the differences between the major Republican candidates. Yet McCain appeals to non-Republicans in a way that Bush does not. As the nominee of his party, Bush could count on the votes of Republicans and those of a smattering of independents and Democrats. McCain would garner the Republican vote and collect a substantial number votes from the rest of the electorate. Reputedly, Republicans really want to win this year. Why do they want Bush, with his snide tone and thin résumé?

What is McCain's appeal outside Republican circles? There is no single answer, of course, but answers aren’t hard to find:

  1. McCain is a war hero from an unpopular war with few heroes.
  2. McCain is a straight-talker who is willing to tell voters what he thinks, rather than what pollsters tell him he should say. (The business about the Confederate flag in South Carolina was perhaps an aberration.)
  3. McCain is willing to admit his mistakes, a refreshing and surprising trait in a politician. (Some have suggested that McCain actually celebrates his mistakes.)
  4. In campaign finance reform, McCain has an idealistic issue that promises systemic change within the body politic. As a Senator, McCain seemed the perennial champion of a lost cause; as President, reform might actually happen. 

McCain has his liabilities, of course, and his capacity to attract primary votes from people who disagree with many of his positions may be diminished in the general election. The philosophical center of the Republican Party is far to the right of that of the American people, however, and, lacking the will to effect a wholesale shift to the center, the Republicans need a gimmick to have any hope of electing the next President. John McCain may be that gimmick.

— LED, 2/23/2000

 

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