A longer version of this article went into the Lancaster Newspapers, for which I’m a regular columnist and through which I’m now reaching about half a million readers. Despite the local popularity of my columns, I’ve not been syndicated; nor have I been invited on to Republican talk radio nor asked to appear with prepubescent bloggers on the O’Reilly Hour. The observation I make about McCain’s total inability to appeal to the right has been confirmed since the article appeared by the fact that his poll numbers relative to either Democratic opponent have been steadily falling throughout the last week. Not surprisingly, I may be the only columnist in the state of Pennsylvania who noticed (or elected to call attention to the problem) that Ron Paul’s share of the Republican primary vote in any way indicates the weakness of McCain’s candidacy.
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 FOX, 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. That is, unless one looks upon 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% to less than 50%. 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 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; and 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; and 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 official, he is not likely to crack the black Democratic vote, that is, go much beyond the 8 to 10% of black voters that Bush picked up in 2000 and 2004. McCain may do better among Latinos, but if he faces Hillary, someone who enjoys immense Latino favor, McCain might not even win as many Latino votes (about 40%) as Bush did in 2004. He can also fall into what I described in my last column, as 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% 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 the two men could agree on, 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’re grumbling even now shows that McCain still can’t overcome his image of not really being on the right. He’s also being 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.” The national polls I’ve seen put McCain at least 9 points behind Hillary in a presidential match-u. These are their relative positions even before Hillary and her Democratic rival have stopped clobbering each other. If Obama can rebound from his association with the mouthy Jeremiah Wright, he too 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.