In early 1980, Ronald Reagan stumbled in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Fundraising results were disappointing, forcing the campaign to accept federal matching funds. Staff members were being let go. Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses, and with it the inevitability that accompanied his frontrunner status.
Then on the afternoon of the New Hampshire primary, Reagan fired John Sears, his campaign manager. And the rest, as they say, is history.
This is likely the historical analogy that most appeals to John McCain following the toughest day of his so far disappointing presidential campaign. Chief strategist John Weaver is gone. Campaign manager Terry Nelson is gone. Deputies Reed Galen and Rob Jesmer followed them out the door. The Arizonan and his supporters would prefer to believe this marks a Reagan-like new beginning rather than the beginning of the end.
Perhaps they will be proven right. But the Reagan-McCain analogy breaks down in some key places. Reagan, who barely lost Iowa, won the New Hampshire primary the day he sent Sears packing, before the firing could have had any effect. Meanwhile, the McCain staff shake-up looks less like a deliberate change in direction than the fallout over internal disarray.
McCain is left with less cash on hand than Ron Paul. He is said to be focusing on an early state strategy while cutting staff in those very same states. Fred Thompson is sucking up oxygen nationally, Mitt Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire.
All this takes place in a hurried political climate where candidates need more money and have less time than they did in 1980.
More importantly, McCain has based his presidential run on flawed premises. He was never the runaway frontrunner the media assumed. Since 2005, polls showed he would have a fight on his hands if Rudy Giuliani — or any number of other potential top-tier candidates — got in the race. The strategy of trying to be the independent maverick of his 2000 campaign and an establishment-friendly Bush loyalist at the same time never made sense.
Building a campaign organization around being a George W. Bush or Reagan-style frontrunner, in anticipation of money that never came in, turned out to be a serious error. So was the McCain camp’s failure to appreciate the extent of the senator’s estrangement from grassroots conservatives — a bad relationship made worse by the recently defeated Senate immigration bill.
It didn’t have to be this way. Despite all the talk about McCain’s heresies against conservatism — especially since he ran to the left of Bush in the 2000 primaries — he remains the Republican presidential candidate with longest record of opposition to abortion, support for conservative judicial nominees, and advocacy of a strong national defense. While it would never have been easy for McCain to get past his partnerships with Russ Feingold and Ted Kennedy, the Gang of 14, or his votes against the Bush tax cuts, he could have appealed to the pragmatic social conservatives who are still searching for a candidate.
Yet when McCain differed from the Republican base, his words always carried a hint of anger, as if he did not respect the very people he most needed to persuade. It was similar to the disdain some Republicans evinced when they read favorable press clippings about McCain in traditionally liberal media outlets.
McCain has been through tougher ordeals. He is not likely to give up easily. Shortly after his campaign restructure, he took to the Senate floor to counsel against withdrawal from Iraq. When California Sen. Barbara Boxer confronted him with polling data showing rising antiwar sentiment, McCain raised his voice slightly.
“The fact is, I do read the polls. And if the Senator from California had paid attention to my opening statement she would have known that I made it clear that I understand the frustration and the sorrow of the American people,” McCain shot back. “I also know that a lot of us are not driven by polls. A lot of us are driven by principle. And a lot of us do what we think is right no matter what the polls say.”
So McCain continues what might be his final national campaign, doing what he thinks is right and trying to turn things around. Without the independents who have turned against him because of the war. Without the same enthusiasm from the liberal media. Without John Weaver. And without much time.
It will either be a new beginning or John McCain’s last stand.