If McCain Is Trash, So Is His Party(Correct)

(Corrects typographical error in 19th paragraph.)

July 25 (Bloomberg) — McCain is history.

That's the line inside the Republican Party about its former frontrunner for the presidential nomination, John McCain. No name, not even Ron Paul, elicits the snort of contempt you get when you utter that of the senator from Arizona to a Republican operative.

You have to wonder why. Republicans, after all, have long styled themselves as the party of leadership. They did it so much that they irritated almost everyone. Their talk had an empty circularity: someone was a leader because he led. Yet they clung to the word, through the campaigns of 2000 and 2004.

Fast forward to 2008. You may not agree with every one of McCain's positions. But at least he has positions. He is the candidate who is making unpopular, and often right, choices. Just the way a true leader does.

Consider pork, the congressional spending on interest-group programs. Lawmakers, with the tacit support of President George W. Bush, have used the excuse of the war in Iraq to spend the past half-decade inserting earmarks and other giveaways into whatever legislation comes before them.

McCain, unlike many Republicans, has crusaded over the years against the process. Monday night in a Michigan speech he made a promise: "Give me the pen, and I'll veto every single pork-barrel bill Congress sends me." And knowing what we know about McCain, you have to believe him.

Toxic Issue

Immigration is another example. The nation's feelings on this topic are as inconsistent and hypocritical as the application process for a green card. The "no-more-Mexicans" impulse, the "we-want-security" impulse, the "immigrants-bring-growth" impulse and the "we-want-to-be-kind" impulse all compete within the collective American breast. What the country needs is someone to construct a law that emphasizes the impulses that make sense.

That is what McCain sought to do when he labored in the Senate to pass an immigration bill. His bill created a way to legalize some of the millions of illegal aliens in the country.

But the immigration bill proved to be untenable, and the very concept of legalizing illegals toxic. Nonetheless, McCain stuck to his legislating. He even sent his economic adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, to do battle with the ferocious hosts of conservative-talk radio. That challenge was so great that Holtz-Eakin later said that he would rather test a flame-retardant suit.

On campaign finance McCain likewise shows courage. You may not like McCain-Feingold, his campaign-finance legislation. But at least McCain wrote a law.

What's more, he is gracious about the outcome of that law. You don't hear him berating Democrat Barack Obama, even though the senator from Illinois turned out to be the election season's surprise beneficiary of the new rules, receiving millions of dollars in small donations.

Held Accountable

To be sure, these stands may just be a function of the office McCain holds. McCain has the advantage of Senate incumbency over Mitt Romney, a former governor, Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor who works as a consultant, and former Senator Fred Thompson, a television and radio star. Of all the Republican candidates or near-candidates, McCain is the only one in a position to write laws and take stands on the thorny issues of our day — and be held accountable.

But then there is Iraq. Again, you might not agree with his support for a continued troop presence, but you have to applaud his consistency. More than rivals, even those who support the war, McCain is credible when he talks about the grueling sacrifice of combat, not to mention time as a prisoner of war.

In terms of American credibility abroad, McCain has that too: even al-Qaeda knows well the amount of years he spent in the Hanoi Hilton.

Follow the Leader

So why not follow the leader? It may be that the party and donors are merely shifting their bets to a figure they feel would be a better leader, Giuliani. Giuliani demonstrated leadership in New York after Sept. 11, but that doesn't compare to what McCain endured.

Maybe the real reason McCain is losing so early is lack of leadership — not on his part, but on the part of his party and Republican voters.

The two great questions of all elections are "Would this candidate be good?" and "Would he win?" The first question is the one that matters more. But at some point in the election cycle madness sets in and only the latter is relevant.

Republicans are so crazed to stay on top in Washington that this time they have let themselves go mad early. The intensity of the contempt toward McCain has less to do with McCain the man than with Republican desperation. Donors sense this and have duly reduced spending, which helps explain why contributions to Campaign McCain have been so disappointing.

What that means is that in the end the Grand Old Party may have a candidate who stands for winning and nothing else. That fact renders the GOP doubly vulnerable to the Democrats.

So maybe Republican party leaders, if you can call them that, should take a last look at McCain. And use the autumn to think hard about what the party stands for. Otherwise McCain isn't the only one who is history in 2008. His party may be too.

(Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2007 Bloomberg

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