Monday, October 27, 2008

Politics: Evangelicals Defeat McCain--Twice?

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - A lesser-known fact about me is that the first politician I ever gave money to was John McCain. In the early 1990's, McCain was the foremost advocate of campaign finance reform in the US Senate, and those efforts made him a RossPAC recipient. Seattle talk show host Dave Ross of KIRO would find recipients that he felt were worthy and then request that his listeners each send the designee $1. If enough people sent in $1, the politician would notice as much as if a major donor had made a contribution. I didn't normally participate in the RossPAC, but at the time I felt strongly enough about campaign finance reform that I did send McCain $1. In the ensuing years, McCain easily spent ten times that sending me Christmas cards and campaign literature.

In 2000 (well, 1999 and 2000), when McCain first ran for president, I seriously considered supporting him. Besides his history of leadership on campaign finance reform, he had a general record of being willing to stand up to his own Republican party on issues where he disagreed, and I felt that matters on which I clearly disagreed with him, mostly so-called "social" issues like abortion and gay marriage, were not important to him and hence things he was unlikely to do much about if he became president. I actually found the Keating Five scandal from McCain's past to be a net positive, as he had clearly learned from the incident.

Of course, McCain would not become the Republican nominee in 2000. The turning point came in the North Carolina primary, in which McCain was soundly defeated after a variety of questionable tactics by the George W. Bush campaign, from push polling to old-fashioned rumor spreading that McCain's adopted daughter from Bangladesh was actually his own love child and that McCain had been mentally damaged by his prisoner of war experience in Vietnam. These tactics worked largely because the wing of the Republican party consisting of evangelical Christians didn't trust McCain in the first place, and this gave them additional excuses not to vote for him. In a very real sense, it was the evangelicals who prevented McCain from riding a wave of support from independent-leaning voters to the Republican nomination and quite likely the presidency.

John McCain may have managed to gain the Republican nomination in 2008, but evangelicals seem to have again placed him on a path to defeat in the general election. In an atmosphere in which voters appear to be still believe in conservative economic principles, yet do not believe that the Republican party is credible, McCain should have been the perfect antidote. Thanks to his history of taking on other Republicans on everything from tax policy to the conduct of a war, McCain had considerable credibility as someone different than the normal Republican. With the "Republican brand" so damaged by the George W. Bush administration, this would seem like the perfect recipe--all McCain had to do was run against the Bush administration, just like the Democratic nominee would do, and take advantage of his broad appeal with independents to ride to a clear victory.

However, McCain hadn't run against Bush particularly aggressively until just recently. His responses to the constant refrain from the Barack Obama campaign that McCain voted with Bush's position 90% of the time were tepid, and accusation started to stick. While the concept of being a "maverick" was emphasized by McCain, voters somehow didn't find these ideas mutually exclusive. McCain seems to be regarded as a "maverick" associated with the Republican Bush administration.

Why hadn't McCain more forcefully responded to those charges? The evangelical wing of the Republican party still likes George W. Bush, and he was advised--accurately, it seems--that the "get out the vote" efforts that propelled Bush to the White House twice required evangelicals to be active. McCain, especially after his experiences in 2000, could not afford to distance himself too strongly from the Bush adminstration for fear of making the evangelicals even more tepid in their support than they already were.

Yet, the volunteers and energy were simply not there in the Republican campaign until the nomination of Sarah Palin as vice-president. Palin is popular with evangelicals for her fundamentalist Christian beliefs, and her selection seemed to finally convince them that McCain was worth electing--something that even his answers at the Rick Warren forum earlier in the campaign had not achieved. While evangelicals clearly preferred McCain's simple, clear answers at that forum to Obama's "above my pay grade" approach, it hadn't been enough to get volunteers out.

While Palin has clearly gotten the Republican base energized, her inclusion on the ticket--issues of competence aside--also served to associate the McCain campaign with the same sort of right-wing social agenda that the Bush administration had pursued, and effectively associated McCain further with Bush to independent voters--exactly what he didn't need.

So, in the end, it would appear that evangelicals may be on the verge of engineering John McCain's defeat for the second time. They defeated him in 2000, and their influence appears to be leading to his defeat in 2008.

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