What is John McCain up to? Critics of his immigration proposal which now include most conservative pundits portend the end of his campaign. They say that inflaming the conservative base just at the time his message of toughness in Iraq and fiscal vigilance was beginning to resonate amounts to political suicide. Moreover, they explain that throwing sharp elbows at Mitt Romney, who trails McCain in virtually all national (and most state) polls and who received mixed reviews for his last debate performance, only elevates this opponent and helps Romney make his case to skeptical conservatives.
If you do not buy into the "he's just lost it" chatter, there is a different explanation for the events of the last few weeks: McCain is being McCain.
McCain, for better or worse, refuses to buy into the notion that his long held policy objectives, even when out of sync with voters he is courting, should be trimmed to meet political realities. If less than a third of Americans support the surge that is just too bad, according to his thinking. He knows in his heart he is right, to borrow the Barry Goldwater slogan, and he is not moving a bit. If the policy is deeply felt, the political obstacles are irrelevant to his thinking.
On immigration, two McCain principles are at stake. Motivated either by a steely-eyed realism about the lack of will to deal punitively with the current illegal alien population or enticed by promises of enhanced border security, his attachment to "resolving" the immigration issue -- however flawed a goal in the eyes of critics -- seems entirely genuine. Second, McCain has long placed a high priority on "bipartisanship" as a goal in and of itself. If virtually automatic probationary status for illegals, waiver of income tax obligations and somewhat hazy "triggers" are not what he would have preferred (and are an anathema to his party), "reaching across the aisle" to solve problems is worth the trade. (It echoes the Gang of 14 when in the balance between the President's right to appoint nominees of his own choosing against the harm it would do to senatorial comity, comity won out.). Most politicians would regard those accommodations as too steep a price to pay, but for McCain bipartisanship is a principle worth paying for.
So if McCain cares little for the political ramifications of his policy choices, pundits are still left scratching their heads over the amplified attacks on Governor Romney. Even severe critics of the Governor's flip-flops are quick to point out that McCain's attacks may be a political gift. Why give Romney the opportunity to "bond" with the base in their fury over immigration? Why should McCain risk getting into the mud and losing his heroic image?
The explanation is both strategic and personal. From the McCain campaign's perspective, Romney's hold on a segment of conservative voters is preventing McCain from becoming the sole challenger to Rudy Giuliani. If Romney survives, continues to advance and captures a first or second place in Iowa, McCain's hopes of catching Giuliani dim further. "Knock him out before he grows" advisors seem to urge him. Believing that the "flip flop" label is a powerful negative label to affix to Romney, they clearly perceive no choice but to increase the volume and frequency of the anti-Romney message and, when necessary, have the candidate carry the message himself. They intend to put a halt to what they are convinced is Romney's "free ride" with the media and conservative commentators.
But that's too complicated, you say. Why not go after the guy who is in first place, Giuliani himself? It would be more direct and perhaps more effective, but it would be very un-McCain.
McCain considers himself to be the man of principle -- taking political risks and always true to his beliefs. He likely uses this same measure in evaluating others and simply cannot abide a polished opponent who tacks from side to side, calibrating his views (and even his hobbies) to those of the conservative base. McCain's sly crack about Romney changing positions in "even numbered years" belies contempt for his opponent. The adjective "little" preceding varmint gun (which McCain joked Romney might use against Guatemalans on his lawn) was meant -- aside from any Freudian analogy -- to reinforce McCain's view of the smallness, perhaps the silliness, of his rival.
As for Giuliani, McCain's respect and indeed affection are evident and it would be very un-McCain of him to attack the Mayor of America, at least in personal terms, no matter how politically attractive.
So when critics say McCain has "lost it" I think they have it wrong. This is the real McCain -- stubbornly principled and impatient toward those he perceives with lower ethical standards. His critics would add: politically reckless. He may be one voter's maverick and another's lose cannon, but I suspect it is the real McCain. The GOP voters will decide if he is what they had in mind to lead the party and the country.
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