Let’s get the two defensible things Walter Shapiro says in his latest Salon column out of the way. Yes, there is a contradiction between trying to replicate George W. Bush’s campaigns and the John McCain 2000 campaign, and it’s one McCain has even at this late date failed to resolve. Yes, there is a strong conservative case to be made against many of the Bush administration’s policies, including some that are popular among self-described conservatives. The rest of Shapiro’s piece is utter nonsense.
Shapiro recycles the conventional wisdom that McCain “decided from the outset that he would get right — very right-wing — with the Republican base.” Let’s unpack this extreme swing to the right. McCain gave the commencement address at Liberty University, making nice with “agent of intolerance” Jerry Falwell — but also gave the exact same speech at the far-left New School for Social Research. It’s true that McCain didn’t want the religious right’s active opposition in the primaries. Neither did Rudy “Meet My New Friend Pat Robertson” Giuliani. But there was no major shift in either his policies or his rhetoric that accompanied his trip to Liberty. This is akin to saying that Barack Obama turned into a right-wing Christianist by virtue of appearing at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, an argument no one this side of Andrew Sullivan would take seriously.
Then there is the problem of the tax cuts. It’s true that it is difficult to campaign on making tax cuts permanent when you voted against them in the first place, but this is hardly the stuff of right-wing extremism. The 2001 Bush tax cuts were supported by no fewer than 12 Democratic senators as well as liberal Republican-turned-independent Jim Jeffords. Only McCain, then functionally a hawkish moderate Democrat, and Lincoln Chafee, the most liberal Republican in the Senate, joined a majority of Democrats in voting no. If McCain had supported these tax cuts, along with the much more pro-growth 2003 tax cuts, he would have had an easier time distinguishing himself from Obama on the tax issue. But if he was openly calling for the tax cuts to expire, as Shapiro implies he should be doing, McCain’s task would have been even harder.
Shapiro similarly misreads McCain’s path to the nomination. It’s true that McCain held on to anti-Bush Republicans — including, implausibly, Republicans and independents who oppose the Iraq war — and that he benefited from the Bush coalition being split three ways by Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee. But McCain got just enough of the voters who opposed him in 2000 to make a difference. He improved among conservative Christians, won self-described Republicans in Florida, and was able to knock out enough of his stronger opponents before he could be clobbered in the closed primaries. He was able to avoid antagonizing economic/social conservatives while holding onto his coalition of hawks and moderates at the same time.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that McCain could have won the nomination by running the anti-Republican campaign that Shapiro recommends. Who would be voting for McCain now? The fact is, the strongest McCain has ever been in the national polls was when he picked Sarah Palin and united the base around him. Some of this was convention bounce. The base isn’t sufficient to win an election. But neither can you count on swing voters to deliver victory if you don’t first secure the base. Instead Shapiro says that McCain should have turned his convention into a debacle by picking Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge and forcing a conservative walkout. That might have won the crucial Walter Shapiro vote, but it would have lost McCain the election just as surely as talking about nothing other than Bill Ayers for three months would have.
Lieberman is a pro-choice liberal hawk. Ridge isn’t even much of a hawk — in Congress in the 1980s, he supported nulcear freeze, opposed aid to the Contras, opposed the MX missile, and opposed much of the Reagan defense buildup. Either choice would have made Bob Barr a factor in this race. In 1948, Harry Truman was staring down a minority regional faction of his party over civil rights. Sixty years later, McCain would have been picking a fight with a majority of his party.
Finally, the notion McCain would be better off as a deficit hawk is absurd. Obama only mentions the deficit to criticize the Bush tax cuts and is not running on a deficit-reduction platform. McCain, by contrast, talks about earmarks and excessive spending where ever he goes. Should he have doubled down on this message? A serious deficit hawk would reduce entitlement spending. Shapiro presumably also wants McCain to talk about higher taxes. What is Obama hitting McCain for in his ads right now? Supposedly cutting Medicare and taxing health care benefits.
But if McCain had run the kind of campaign Shapiro suggests, I suppose Salon could have run some nice pieces on what a good loser he is.