John McCain's political course may strike some observers as mystifying.
Instead of doing what Republican candidates are supposed to do before
the general race -- securing their base by moving rightward -- McCain
has generally done the opposite. This may be hard to notice if one
watches the Fox News Channel, whose pundits have been reassuring us
that "McCain is mending his fences with the conservative base." Save
for his talk about making Bush's tax cuts permanent, McCain has not
been tending to such fences.
Unless one looks upon calls for more government programs for student
loans, a speech in Memphis expressing McCain's deep regret for not
having rallied to the Martin Luther King national holiday soon enough,
and menacing threats to the anti-democratic regime in Teheran as gestures
intended to satisfy the Republican Right. Of course, here the Right
refers to the neoconservative media and to such unlikely Republican
news interpreters as Geraldo Rivera and Dick Morris. These are the "conservative" voters
whom McCain seems to be satisfying. If there are others, I am still
looking for them.
McCain or any other Republican politician is facing a declining electoral
base, as Professor Alan Abramowitz of Emory University proves in an
essay, "The Incredible Shrinking Republican Base in Real Clear
Politics." Most Republican voters are white, married Christians,
and the number of those who fall into this category has sunk since
the 1950s from over 80 percent to less than 50 percent.
Those who do not belong to this once-dominant group and those who
do but who have also attended elite universities tend to be on the
social Left. Presumably those who are not or who are no longer part
of the Republican base are the ones McCain is trying to lure. That
may be why he plunged headlong in 1980 and again in 1988 into heated
local debates in South Carolina by calling for the removal of the Stars
and Bars from all public buildings.
The Republican candidate has tried even harder to reach out to blacks
by apologizing to civil rights groups for not having been in step with
them in the 1980s. Last year McCain opposed his own party's measures
in Arizona (which passed in a referendum) to control the influx of
illegals; because of this move he enjoyed a favorable press not only
among Latino advocates but also in The New York Times.
The problem here is that elections have to be waged in the short
run. McCain's, or his advisors', attempt to chart a leftwing course
for the GOP on the basis of shifting demographic trends may be ruinous
for the fall election. No matter how ostentatiously Mac displays his
sackcloth and ashes before civil rights officials, he is not likely
to crack the black Democratic vote, that is, go much beyond the 8 percent
to 10 percent of black voters that Bush picked up in 2000 and 2004.
McCain may do better among Latinos, but he can also fall into no
man's land, the indeterminate zone between the two national parties,
where the candidate does not take votes away from the moderate Left
but also fails to energize the Republicans' conservative base.
That is exactly where McCain is right now. In the Pennsylvania Republican
primary, the antiwar, anti-big-government candidate Ron Paul picked
up 15.9 percent of the votes, a fact that neither the liberal nor neoconservative
media had any interest in playing up. What makes that underreported
fact particularly interesting is that Congressman Paul had dropped
out of the race even before the primary took place. Exactly where will
his voters go in the general race? It is highly unlikely they will
go to McCain, whose contempt for Paul, as an "appeaser," was
obvious in the primary debates. In fact, there was nothing substantive
on which the two men could agree, since they come from opposing traditions
in their party: one from the centrist, leaning-left, internationalist
wing, and the other from the anti-welfare state and war-averse one.
But McCain is going to need the votes of the anti-welfare-state Right
to pull out a presidential win. And so far even movement conservative
talk show hosts, like Limbaugh, are not rallying to his cause. While
these Republican talking heads may come around, the fact they are grumbling
even now shows that McCain still cannot overcome his image of not really
being on the right. He was also crowded out of the center and center-left
by Hillary, who seems to have moved there by deploring the racism of
Obama's minister and by presenting herself to ethnic Catholic Democrats
as a "moderate."
If Obama can rebound from his association with the mouthy Jeremiah
Wright, he might be a deadly challenge for the Republicans. But that
would depend on his ability to move toward the center and contest that
ground with McCain.
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The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2008
by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities
at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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