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10.07.08

McCain at War with His Own Party

Conservatives continue to distrust McCain, which is why they are looking forward to his defeat.

John McCain is paying the price for being the candidate of a party at war with itself. While he gambled on being able to pull off the financial rescue, the House Republicans gambled on flouting him. His party thwarted him from demonstrating mastery, forcing him to lose control of the economic issue and the campaign.

Senator McCain’s self-interest and the House Republicans’ were on a collision course. For him, the stakes were clear: McCain believed he had to act quickly to sweep the economic issue away. Barack Obama was becoming its beneficiary simply as a matter of being the Democratic candidate. By suspending his campaign, McCain hoped he would do more than neutralize the issue. If he succeeded, he would be seen as both the agent of change and the one who used his experience to end the economic crisis, conclusive proof of his political leadership. He would be acclaimed as a fearless and decisive man of action.

Thus the House Republican logic: The road to ruin is the road to victory; after Obama, us.

But the House Republicans never liked him and many despised him. He had betrayed the party line time and again. McCain emerged as the Republican nominee only because of the fracturing of the party’s conservative wing. If he were to be elected president in November they would still not win the House majority. They were condemned to the minority for the foreseeable future. President McCain would undoubtedly cut deals with the Democratic Congress, leaving them sidelined.

But with Obama as president, the Democrats would control everything and could be blamed for everything, just as they had during Bill Clinton’s first two years, which led to the Republican majority, and during Jimmy Carter’s four years, which led to Ronald Reagan. Sarah Palin wasn’t enough for them. Thus the House Republican logic: The road to ruin is the road to victory; after Obama, us.

McCain, the would-be maverick, tried to coax the House Republicans to go along to get along, to get a little bit more of what they wanted but to agree to the imperfect compromise. Pleading with them to play the classic Washington game only outraged them.

House Republican Minority Leader John Boehner gave the White House and the Democratic congressional leaders assurance that he could muster 100 votes to pass the bill. But when it came to the floor it was defeated, 228 to 205, with 133 Republicans voting against it and only 65 in favor. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who had failed to whip her caucus, lost 95 Democrats, the left-wing rump caucus, dozens she had thought would vote for the measure, in alliance with the right wing. But it’s McCain who suffers, Obama who benefits.

Even the later passage of the bill could not recover what McCain lost. Rather than eliminating the economic issue, he is perceived as contributing to political chaos and economic turmoil.

As I wrote in my recent book, The Strange Death of Republican America: Chronicles of a Collapsing Party, the GOP under President Bush is reaching the end of the long Republican era that began under Richard Nixon. Now, in the face of economic crisis, trying to put his party together, McCain’s daring gambit has not only exposed the damage—he’s become its victim.