KEENE, New Hampshire — A couple of years ago my wife met John McCain while interning in Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s office at the Supreme Court. The Arizona senator shook her hand and asked where she was from. She answered New Hampshire. “Well, in that case let me shake your hand again,” McCain said.
At a town hall meeting this past weekend at Keene State College, McCain got a second chance at 200 more hands. The thunderous applause that met him upon arrival confirms a special relationship remains between McCain and the state that gave him an 18-point victory over George W. Bush in the 2000 primary. As he took the stage Saturday morning he joked, “Seems like only yesterday…”
Yet the meat and potatoes of Saturday’s event suggest 2008 will not be a matter of simply picking up where he left off in 2000. The pulse of the electorate cannot be measured by observing a single crowd on one morning in Keene, New Hampshire, but it is already apparent that issues and priorities are in flux. During an hour-long Q&A session, there was not a single question about terrorism. Only two people brought up Iraq. This crowd seemed more concerned with Dubai than Iran; more afraid of Jack Abramoff than Osama bin Laden.
There is love for McCain in New Hampshire, but there is also opposition, both from liberals (a protester in a McCain mask out front kindly warned me that a “Bush clone” masquerading as a moderate was somewhere on the premises) and conservatives expressing a seething, sometimes shockingly crude anger over McCain’s stance on immigration. If I had a dime for every person who came to the microphone with a complaint about the ineffectiveness of the Republican Party…Well, I’d only have little more than a dollar, but in a state with no income tax that still goes pretty far.
Some of this plays to McCain’s strengths; the perception of him as an outsider, the arguments for and against which George Will already presented well enough and, as such, need not be repeated at length here. Suffice to say if Democrats’ plan for the 2006/2008 election cycles is to make hay of the “culture of corruption,” McCain is better at the holier-than-thou bit than most. Every mention of campaign finance reform and promise to kill 527s drew extended whoops and hollers, as if nothing were more in vogue than snipping away at free speech rights. McCain is also fairly good at turning corruption-fighting in directions the Democrats probably don’t want to go, holding up disgraced former California Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham as an example of why a loose appropriations system needs to be tightened up — something no pork-loving congressman or senator wants to see happen. “My friends, bad practices have allowed bad people to do bad things,” McCain intoned, and the crowd ate it up like a speech from a knight off to slay the dragon.
But there are other elements of the new paradigm, as well, which are necessary to embrace to a point, even as they threaten the very strengths that brought him widespread fame and acclaim in 2000, but failed to deliver him the White House. How much of the “independent streak” is McCain willing to sacrifice on one end to make him reasonably competitive on the other? And in striking the balance, will he lose his appeal?
PER USUAL, McCAIN IS AT his best when dealing with spending issues. “I’ve often said Congress spends money like a drunken sailor, but I never met a sailor drunk or sober with the imagination of my colleagues,” McCain said to enthusiastic cheers.
Nonetheless, Saint Augustine may have prayed, “Oh Lord make me chaste, but not yet!” but were he an American voter, he probably would have been something more along the lines of, “Oh Lord, make my government chaste, but not until my wants are met!” Complaints about the deficit were often followed up by complaints of a lack of spending in another area, and both seemed to garner equal support from the crowd. And for all the “Look out, here comes some straight talk” posturing, McCain — let there be no doubt, one of the few true deficit hawks — keeps the fiscal discipline talk general enough in his stump speech to avoid alienating anyone.
A good example is his criticism of one of the murkier methods of government spending, the supplemental riders attached to unrelated bills called earmarks. (Pat Hynes has video of a similar speech the night before.) “Not all earmarks are bad,” McCain said. “Many of them border on the outrageous, though. My favorite one lately is $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don’t know if that was a criminal issue or a paternity issue.”
Such potshots are easy: They get a laugh and it’s unlikely anyone from the please-test-bears’-DNA constituency is going to be in the crowd. Killing such programs would certainly make a tasty appetizer, but in the scheme of a $9 trillion debt? To his credit, McCain also brought up Social Security and Medicare, the vast-and-getting-vaster unfunded mandates driving most government spending. But in the wake of the abysmal failure of Social Security reform and the mind-boggling prescription drug bill, how much reform is plausible with current mood of the electorate is unclear.
THE BIGGEST SIGN OF STRAIN in the relationship between McCain and his fan base is clearly immigration. When McCain explained he didn’t want to leave “millions of people in shadows, not part of our society but working,” the crowd was stonily silent. A few minutes later a member of the audience called illegal immigrants “parasites,” and declared, “They should all be thrown out. No amnesty, no exception I don’t care if they’ve been here 50 years.” McCain stood with a forced grin as applause rivaling his entrance echoed off the walls.
McCain, while used to defending his position on immigration back in Arizona, seemed genuinely taken aback by the vitriol. (So was this writer, to be honest. It will be more than a little sad if this immigration debate cannot be conducted without crass dehumanization of immigrants, whatever their legal status.) McCain defended himself with a terse comment about what it would take to round up/deport 11 million individuals and charitably described the exchange as a “respectful disagreement,” but he certainly didn’t go on to present any straight talk about his work with Ted Kennedy on the issue, either.
ONE ASPECT OF THE NEXT RACE that is already exceedingly clear to McCain is that he cannot win the Republican nomination on the strength of ‘lil ole New Hampshire alone. Thus, Ted Kennedy is not name-checked, but when a Keene State College student regurgitated Jon Stewart’s criticism on The Daily Show over kowtowing to the religious right, McCain seemed eager to use it as an opportunity to kowtow a little more, first warmly detailing the meeting wherein he and Reverend Jerry Falwell buried the hatchet (polls must show the “Tinky Winky is gay” vote is in play) and then offering a spirited defense of religious conservatives.
“I have said to my Republican friends who feel there is perhaps too much influence by the quote, ‘Christian right’ if that’s what you want to call it” — What? Has
“agents of intolerance” gone out of style? — “in our party, ‘Well you get on it,'” McCain related. “‘You get busy. You become a precinct committeeman. You run for public office. You organizers voters. You get the debate going within our Republican Party.'”
It’s early yet and almost impossible to imagine McCain’s famous prickliness will not surface as the pressure of the race builds. But for now modesty is the name of the game.
“One of the things I have learned in my life — and it wasn’t easy to learn because I am very passionate and sometimes combative person — is to not hold a grudge in life,” McCain said. “After I lost the primaries to President Bush in South Carolina I spent ten wonderful days wallowing in self-pity, feeling sorry for myself about all the wrongs that had been done to me and all the people who had let me down….Then I decided this wasn’t very smart.” He got back on the horse, he said. He decided to “not look back in anger.”
Now how to look forward? Therein lies the rub.
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