WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain was asked the other day to name his worst habit. “I have so many,” he replied. “I’m still impatient. I want to see things happen. I want to see results and sometimes it frustrates me.”
His frustration was evident Thursday night when the Republican lawmaker took his party and president to task over the war in Iraq, government spending and unprincipled partisanship. His patience will be put to a test if, as expected, McCain seeks the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
It will not be an easy race. Though the Arizona senator would start at the head of the pack – the presumptive favorite in a party that tends to anoint its front-runners – McCain’s greatest advantage is also his Achilles heel. For those keeping score:
Advantage: McCain has the best “brand” in politics. Just as companies build images, so do politicians, and the brand McCain cultivated in his failed 2000 primary campaign against President Bush is perfectly suited to the times.
- Americans have lost faith in their leaders, political and otherwise. Thus, they’ll demand authenticity from presidential candidates in 2008: take tough stands, admit mistakes and don’t spin. In 2000, McCain rode a bus called the “Straight Talk Express,” a symbol of his buck-the-status-quo image that was eight years ahead of its time.
- After two divisive terms under President Clinton and eight more years of partisanship under President Bush, voters want a leader who will inspire them and their country to greater heights. Again, McCain tapped this vein in 2000 by asking Americans to sacrifice for “a cause greater than our self-interest.”
Disadvantage: McCain has the most fragile brand in politics. He can least afford to pander, a charge he faced after campaigning for Bush in 2004, backing the war in Iraq and making political peace with evangelical leader Jerry Falwell. He can least afford to spin, which is what critics called his explanations for burying the hatchet with the former nemeses. And he can least afford to look partisan, a word some used to describe his criticism of Sen. John Kerry’s botched joke about Iraq last month.
“It’s my feeling McCain, in pursuing his presidential ambitions, basically dishonored himself and his family,’’ said a voter who backed McCain in 2000. “Could my opinion possibly be too harsh? What do you think?” The remark, posted in a forum about McCain at , underscores the senator’s challenge for 2008: How does he run against the system from inside it?
McCain took the first step toward answering that question in Thursday night’s address to a conservative audience in Washington. First, he distanced himself from Bush on the unpopular war in Iraq. “We have made a great many mistakes in this war, and history will hold us to account for them just as the voters did last week.”
Second, he bucked the political winds and reaffirmed his call for more troops in Iraq. Yet the former Vietnam prisoner of war also implied that he’d prefer immediate withdrawal to a politically motivated staggered pull-out. “What I cannot do I ask (a U.S. soldier) to return to Iraq, to risk life and limb, so that we might delay our defeat for a few months or a year.”
Third, he appealed to conservatives who voted in GOP primaries by aligning himself with Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. He said voters punished Republicans for runaway spending. “We lost our principles and our majority. And there is no way to recover our majority without recovering our principles first.”
Fourth, he spoke to the majority of midterm voters who said corruption was a bigger issue to them than Iraq. Calling for a crack down on Washington lobbyists, McCain said: “I think they rejected us because they felt we had come to value our incumbency over our principles, and partisanship – from both parties – was no longer a contest of ideas, but an ever cruder and uncivil brawl over the spoils of power.”
Fifth, he branded his philosophy “common sense conservatism.” McCain understands that voters want more than the compassion promised by Bush in 2000; they want action and accountability, a lost virtue in Washington that voters consider to be plain common sense.
Sixth, he reached across party lines to independent and moderate Democratic voters to discuss the anxieties of the middle class and the disruptive forces of globalization. McCain even borrowed a line from former President Clinton to express empathy for work-class Americans who “play by the rules” but don’t get ahead.
In that interview this week with , McCain said he many bad habits, impatience among them. It seems he doesn’t want losing to become another.