Thursday, May 1, 2008

What McCain Wants

By Mitchell

Today over at NRO, K-Lo discusses why it would make sense for McCain to choose Mitt Romney as his running mate. Now, anyone who's read The Corner during the political season knows about K-Lo's infatuation with Romney, but in this case there's a pretty sound logic to her thinking. (A logic that isn't always present, it might be noted.) However, there's something she writes that I'm just not sure about. It's this line, with which she concludes her thought:

McCain (I assume) wants to win.

I'm not so sure about that. As you'll recall from the story I wrote earlier this year (which we linked to this week), I have this feeling that McCain is motived more by a sense of personal animus and a desire to settle old scores than he is in actually winning the White House. Now, I don't mean that he actually wants to lose, or that he'd do something to intentionally throw the election. I just don't know that he's willing to do what needs to be done to win if that takes him away from his prime motivation: sticking it to his political enemies.

After all, everyone has known for at least two years that this was going to be an extremely difficult election for the Republicans to win, and that in fact defeat was quite likely. I think McCain saw this as his chance to take a few well-placed shots at his long-standing enemies, that it would give him a chance, as I put it in that February story, "to lord it over the other side." Like fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater, it was this feeling that I think marked McCain's drive for the nomination. (Goldwater's, to be sure, was also about ideological purity; but don't you think there's a sort of purity present - or imagined - in McCain's "me vs. the world" mentality?)

And then, wonder of wonders, the Democratic battle descends into a nasty intra-party fight that threatens to tear the Dems in half. Suddenly, McCain discovers he might actually have a chance to win. I wonder if he was really ready for that? What does he do? I mean, if he really wants to win he has to run a much more cautious campaign; he has to try his best to avoid offending conservatives, keeping his temper in check, playing nice with others. He has to stop making the snide comments that he knows drive conservatives up the wall. Is that really what John McCain wants? I mean, where's the fun in that?

Again at NRO, Jay Nordlinger relates how many of his readers have emailed him to say something along the lines of how

The less McCain talks, the more I like him. And the more he talks, the more I dislike him. When he’s been on the sidelines for a while, I start to like him better. But when he gets in, and starts to talk: I think, ‘Oh, yeah — that’s how he is.’”

When Nordlinger suggested that the traditionally outrageous Democratic attacks will produce the traditional result - motivating previously doubtful Republicans to crawl over broken glass to vote for McCain - one replied that he'd crawl over broken glass all right, but he'd only have one bloody hand: " the other will be holding my nose."

McCain does seem to have that effect on people, doesn't he? And I think he gets kind of a charge out of it. That's why I wonder just how badly he wants the White House. He seems to have an almost palpable unease in engaging the Democrats compared to the vigor with which he attacks "fellow" Republicans. Look at how uncomfortable he was at the start of the Wright case, except when it came to criticizing Republicans who tried to make an issue of it. Every time you hear the shrill liberal rhetoric and start to think that maybe McCain isn't so bad after all, you listen to what McCain actually has to say, and within a few minutes you start to get that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, the one that asks you if you're really sure that supporting McCain is what you want to do.

It will be interesting to see McCain struggle with this over the next few months. Does he run a campaign to please himself, or does he try to win? When I ran for the state legislature ten years ago, I was confronted with a somewhat similar situation: the state party had targeted my district as a winnable one, but it meant I would have to moderate my conservative message somewhat to try and attract swing voters. This I dutifully did, with the result that I lost anyway, and deprived myself of the chance to take solace in the thought that I'd gone down swinging. I don't pretend to think that I would have won if only my handlers had just "let Hadley be Hadley" - I probably would have lost by an even greater margin. But at least I would have had the satisfaction of having lost by doing it "my way." That, I think, is the conundrum that McCain faces. He does have to live with himself in the end; what is it that he wants to accomplish?

So does John McCain want to win? Well, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, I suppose that depends on what the definition of "win" is.

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