Alter: McCain Let the GOP Get Away

In a season of ironies, the greatest of all might be that John McCain lacks the toughness to get elected president. During the summer, when he had his best chance, he wasn't tough enough to remake the Republican Party in his own image; instead, he surrendered to a cynical assortment of lobbyists and right-wingers who insisted on a strategic blunder that McCain would recognize from his reading of military history—fighting the last war. In 2004 President Bush won by rallying the base and destroying the Democrat as unpatriotic. They would try to do it again.

But the free-market party of Reagan is dead (thanks to the financial crisis) and the resentment party of Nixon (in the form of the ugly attacks unleashed by McCain and Sarah Palin) may find that its best days are behind it. Where is the party of McCain? The man who survived five and a half years as a Vietnam POW and a thousand political battles is being crushed by a dying elephant.

Sure, the market would likely be melting down McCain's campaign no matter what he did. But he'd have a better chance if he canned the character attacks on Barack Obama. Aside from being offensive and desperate, they don't work with undecided voters. And they're confusing to McCain's own stoked-up partisans, as he found in Minnesota last week, when he told a woman who said she was scared by Obama, because he was "Arab," that she was wrong and his opponent was actually a "decent family man." McCain's own crowd then booed him.

But most voters this year aren't much interested in William Ayers or other distractions. Times are bad and the greedheads are to blame. "They know only the rules of a generation of self seekers," Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his 1933 Inaugural Address, referring to the GOP thinking of the 1920s. "They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish."

Roosevelt's biblical references, as he rallied the country against "fear itself" during the last banking crisis, underscored the break he was making from the Grand Old Party of Coolidge and Hoover. Obama would likely do the same. "The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization," FDR said. "We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit."

Restoration. It's a powerful vision, and one that McCain understood in 2002 when he tried to force the money contributors from their high seats in the Capitol as part of McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform. In those days, McCain built a powerful independent brand in American politics. He recognized that the conservative movement was going off the rails. He voted against Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy because they offended his "conscience," and talked with Tom Daschle about sitting with the Democrats in the Senate and with John Kerry about going on the 2004 Democratic ticket.

But McCain wanted one more shot at the top job. To get it, he tacked right during the GOP primaries this year. He felt he hadn't been tough enough when he lost to Bush in South Carolina in 2000, and he wasn't going to make that mistake again. The hypocrisy of McCain's adopting the Rovean tactics he once decried has been endlessly noted, but it misses the full point. If McCain were truly the independent hard-ass he claims to be, he would have courted the GOP conservative base right up to the moment he clinched the nomination, then galloped to the middle, which is where most American voters live. A true tough guy would have said, in effect, "Hey, this is my party now, with my platform and priorities."

This was McCain's instinct, and it's why he wanted Joe Lieberman, who has a moderate to liberal voting record on everything except Iraq, to be his running mate. (The fact that everything is personal with McCain, and the two are close friends, was also a factor.) Picking Lieberman, who is pro-choice, would have led some delegates to walk out of the GOP convention. But Harry Truman survived a walkout of Southern Democrats who loathed his civil-rights platform in 1948, and McCain would have, too.

I'm not suggesting that choosing Lieberman or Mitt Romney (who at least seems like a financial grown-up) or anyone else would have won the election for McCain. His weird obsession with earmarks to the exclusion of the bigger economic picture would still have fallen flat. But succumbing to the choice of his advisers and going with Palin was not only cynical and irresponsible, it was weak. It was a confession that McCain could not, by himself, wrest control of the Republican Party built by Tom DeLay and Grover Norquist, who once loathed McCain but looked plenty happy in St. Paul, Minn.

Those gents and the House Republicans who almost drove the economy off the cliff last month got into politics because of their hatred of regulation and taxation, the twin bogeymen of the GOP for three decades. But guess what? In the span of three weeks, those words have taken on a positive connotation (at least as applied to Wall Street). When the tectonic plates of American politics shifted, only one candidate was ready.

McCain always says that he's a "maverick," not a conventional Republican. But the idea of a Maverick Party is a contradiction in terms. A party has to stand for a set of branded ideas or it's not a party. And mavericks by definition aren't leaders; they're headstrong politicians (or, originally, cattle) who derive their self-worth from wandering away from the herd. They're about as reliable as a crappy '70s car of that name.

So if McCain wants any chance of getting back into this thing, beyond praying for a foreign-policy crisis or a mother lode of racism just beneath the surface, he needs to break not just from Bush, but from the rotting corpse of his party. Voters don't want to refight the Vietnam War or play stupid guilt-by-association games. They can't be happy that the ads of the Republican nominee are now 100 percent negative. But they might be willing to weigh the vision of a man they once respected, if only he had something left to say.