- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2000

DETROIT

John McCain won the Republican presidential primaries in Michigan and Arizona. But bewildered political strategists are shaking their heads over Mr. McCain's strange and angry campaign strategy, which is based on winning the Republican nomination by attacking the party's establishment.

When Mr. McCain talks of "overthrowing" the Washington establishment, he is not just talking about President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, he is talking about the Republican leadership, which has largely been in the hands of conservatives since Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980. And his strategy, as bizarre as it sounds, is to enlist an army of like-minded Democrats to seize political power.

A McCain for President mailing sent out to Michigan Democrats just a few days before Tuesday's primary appealed to them to turn out and vote for him. "The Democrats are not holding a presidential primary. But you can still make your vote count by voting in the Republican presidential primary on Tuesday," the mailing said.

It worked in Michigan, where Democrats turned out in force to vote for Mr. McCain, giving him 80 percent of their vote and a narrow margin of victory that GOP loyalists see as a hostile takeover attempt. But it won't work in upcoming primaries where only Republican votes are counted or where the Democrats will have competing primaries on the same day.

For example, in the GOP's primary in California, only GOP votes will be counted to decide the winner, who will get all 162 delegates. It is unlikely that Mr. McCain, who is getting 1 out of 4 Republican votes, will be the winner.

But Mr. McCain is not trying to broaden the base of the party by appealing largely to the Democratic and independent vote, as he claims. He is at war with his party and he is using Democrats as his ground troops in a futile and ultimately divisive effort to defeat George W. Bush.

It is a war between the party's bedrock conservative establishment and an unholy, left-leaning coalition led by Mr. McCain and his allies in the liberal Concord Coalition who like the tax rates right where they are, who are obsessed by the government's debt, even though it is declining as a share of gross domestic product and who want to impose dictatorial new bans on campaign fund-raising and the people's constitutionally protected right to run independent issue-advocacy ads during an election.

Mr. Bush skillfully aroused Republican loyalists in South Carolina last week, warning that the McCain forces were trying to "hijack" the Republican Party. His warning fire bell in the night brought out hundreds of thousands of Republican loyalists, who rallied around Mr. Bush as the man who would keep the party in conservative hands.

Mr. McCain has attempted to wrap his insurgent campaign in the Reagan mantle. But Mr. Reagan would never support what Mr. McCain is selling. Mr. Reagan believed in making elections freer, not in further regulating them. He believed in cutting taxes, not raising them, as Mr. McCain's so-called loophole closers (which Mr. Clinton supports) would do to the tune of $150 billion.

What has emerged thus far is the image of an angry, temperamental man who seems to have lost his message. "They're [Republican leaders] all against me," Mr. McCain complained during a brief swing through Michigan on Monday. No wonder. He ran a vicious attack ad in South Carolina that suggested Mr. Bush was no more trustworthy than Bill Clinton. "Do we really want another politician in the White House America can't trust?" the ad asked.

Mr. Bush called the Arizona senator's personal attack "over the line." Seeing his polls plummet in the fallout over the ad's outrageous claim, Mr. McCain pulled the ad and vowed never to take the low road again. But Mr. Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, said the McCain ad was a "stain that can't be easily washed away."

When the South Carolina results came in showing a massive defeat for his candidacy, Mr. McCain made little effort to disguise his bitterness and his anger the dark side of him that his Senate colleagues have seen many times but that he has largely hidden from the public.

In his concession speech, Mr. McCain accused Mr. Bush of pitching a "negative message of fear," of attempting to use "defeatist tactics of exclusion [that] would shut the doors to our party." The choice between him and Mr. Bush was "a choice between experience and pretense." Even his cheerleaders in the news media were stunned by the ferocity of his attack at a moment when the loser is supposed to be gracious and humbled by defeat.

Here in Michigan, during the run-up to Tuesday's primary, Mr. McCain abandoned his decision not to run a negative campaign against Mr. Bush, and his attacks became increasingly strident and whiny phone calls made by McCain staff members said Mr. Bush had "engaged in a win-at-all-costs campaign in South Carolina… . Don't be fooled by George Bush's negative smear campaign," a transcript of one McCain push-poll call said.

But as Mr. McCain continued to level his attacks and to try to generate some enthusiasm from the only voter group that seems drawn to his rhetoric the Democrats Mr. Bush refused to be baited by questions from the traveling press corps to respond in kind.

The Texas governor believes that Mr. McCain, whose reform message has been swallowed up by his own uncontrolled anger, is no longer a serious, viable threat to his candidacy. His strategists think that Mr. Bush is headed for a major sweep of the March 7 and 14 primaries that will put him over the top for the nomination.

John McCain is fast becoming one of the oddest footnotes in Republican history: The man who waged war on his own party in a vain attempt to win the Republican nomination largely with Democratic support. Now that is one for the books.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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