The post-debate analysis is rumbling through the blogosphere and MSM, and most are missing the key exchaneg from last night. It reminds me of how the MSM overlooked John Kerry’s “global test” in the first debate with the president, but the “global test” language proved to be a huge problem for Kerry despite the style points he won from many observors in debate one from the fall of 2004.
There was a similar moment last night when Senator McCain responded to Governor Romney’s blast at McCain-Feingold and McCain-Kennedy.
John McCain bristled and struck out at Mitt Romney last night when the former governor of Massachusetts blasted McCain for his sponsorship of the campaign finance “refrom” act that bears his name. There’s a message in McCain’s reaction –the Arizona senator knows that the GOP has been deeply wounded by the law that unleashed George Soros, but at an even deeper level, Senator McCain realizes that his indifference to constitutional principles embodied in that law is one of the three schisms he cannot repair or paper over or bridge, each one of which divides him from party faithful. Thus his barely concealed anger and his quick rush to go on the offensive by attacking Romney.
Few analysts have focused on Senator McCain’s nearly incoherent response which asserted that there was too much money in politics and that money had corrupted the GOP. Both assertions are simply false, and though the MSM nods along, GOP voters absolutely reject both assertions. There isn’t too much money in political campaigning, they think, there’s too much money from the hard left represented by Soros. Further, the party faithful don’t think of themselves as corrupt, or even of the party generally. They believe that the GOP’s corrupt Congressmen weren’t corrupted by soft money or campaign donations but by cold cash and perks in exchange for favors.
Conflated the two issues and slandering the party as a whole are just the beginning of McCain’s problem. The biggest part is that he genuinely doesn’t seem to understand that the idea of limiting criticism of incumbents 60 days before an election is repulsive to most small government conservatives who understand the Constitution to protect our right to slam elected officials whenever and wherever we want to. Nor does Senator McCain seem willing to acknowledge the vast flaws in his bills which, among other things, kept the unions all-powerful and unleased the 527s on American politics so that transparency vanished even as the money flowed in and which would have awarded social security benefits to illegal aliens for the years they were in the country illegally. The campaign finance fiasco and the awful McCain-Kennedy law are lines in the GOP creed, but Stubborn John won’t hear a word of criticism of either.
Then there is the Gang of 14 and it is important to keep that debacle in mind when Senator McCain brings up his “right to life” record. The Gang of 14 prevented the establishment of a single principle: That every presidential nominee for every court is entitled to an up-or-down vote on the floor of the Senate. That principle was what the fight in the Spring of 2005 was all about, and John McCain didn’t care enough for that principle or the party leadership that had embraced it and campaigned on it through two cycles. In fact he preferred the manufactured privileges of the Senate over the Constitution’s design and the crucial long term goal of saving the confirmation process from the ravages of the left. Now if we end up with a SCOTUS vacancy even the best qualified nominee may not see the light of the floor because of Democratic indifference. The future protections the unborn might have enjoyed from judges and justices committed to originalism were sacrificed by Senator McCain two years ago. The base hasn’t forgotten, and the right-to-life voter will never be persuaded by laundry lists of votes that don’t approach anywhere near the importance of the confirmation process which Senator McCain maneuvered to keep broken and susceptible to more deterioration in the future.
And that doesn’t even get to Senator McCain’s refusal to vote for the Marriage Amendment so that the debate could be waged, properly, in the states.
John McCain said last night that the GOP didn’t lose the 2006 elections because of Iraq but because the party had lost its way. He was partially right. As I wrote after the elections, the GOP lost its way alright, but they went off course with the Gang of 14 and doubled down on its leadership confusion with McCain-Kennedy –Senator McCain’s signature act sof the last two years. The GOP lost its power because it didn’t use its power to accomplish anything approaching reform. The key blocking force in the reform of the Beltway? On the issues of judical nominations and illegal immigration, the key impediment to reform was John McCain. The “reform” he did midwife wasn’t reform at all, but a disaster for the GOP and a boon to the Soros forces.
This is McCain’s burden: He has a very, very recent record of indifference to core GOP principles and he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge his errors. Every time he does so he sends a new message to the GOP base: “Sit down. Shut up. I’m right and you are wrong.” Over and over again he defends what the vast majority of GOP voters emphaticallu reject and he does so with a barely concealed fury at having been challenged.
That isn’t going to fly. He wants to be president, yes, but no one is owed that job, and the GOP nomination doesn’t go to candidates at war with core Republican principles. Being right about the necessity of victory in Iraq is simply not enough.
Over and over again I have invited Senator McCain on to the program to discuss McCain-Feingold, the Gang of 14, and McCain-Kennedy in the same way that I have asked Mayor Giuliani and Governor Romney about about their weakest points –abortion and their records in very left-leaning settings. Rudy and Mitt step up and step into the batter’s box. John McCain will have none of it.
The next debate is in New Hampshire in early June. Hopefully someone will finally focus the candidates on judges, the confirmation process and other key issues related to the Constitution. These are central issues for the GOP electorate which is now fully briefed on the candidates’ abortion positions and their support for the war.
UPDATE: For a collection of debate reactions from folks who really do know the GOP electorate –which is what matters at this point– read Dean’s and my post below and then journey over to the NationalReview.com symposium. I watched the always entertaining Pat Caddell offer analysis last night and shook my head at the inability of the networks to grasp that Republican primary voters are not really easily understood by lefty pollsters, no matter how smart they are.
One more thought: I love the fact that Ron Paul does well in the “text message” polls and on other self-select polls. Whenever anyone in the future brings up the results of a poll conducted using such a methodology, it wil be fun to remind them that, using such a tool, Ron Paul “won” the debate in Columbia.