Regardless of whether or not Dubya ultimately wins the GOP presidential nomination, the Bush debacle in New Hampshire signals the break-up of the old Reagan coalition and presages the demise of the Republican Party. As I pointed out in a column on “the coming implosion of the Bush campaign,” (I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so) the struggle for the soul of the Republican Party is now an internecine battle between the GOP left and the ultra-left, between a moderate Rockefeller Republican and a “progressive” Republican of the Teddy Roosevelt school. Since there are no real ideological differences between Bush and McCain, the contest is reduced to one of personalities and “character” dueling “narratives” in which McCain is inevitably the winner. As the dissolute scion of America’s WASPiest family, Dubya admits that he didn’t do much worth doing until after the age of forty; next to the war hero McCain whose manic pomposity makes him seem almost statesmanlike Boy Dubya’s adolescent smirk is hardly presidential. Far worse, however, is Dubya’s complete lack of spontaneity and his inability to articulate and defend his positions. Here is a candidate so woodenly unconvincing and over- (or under-) rehearsed that he makes Al Gore seem natural and unaffected.
A PAPER TIGER
As a candidate, McCain is more than a match for the princely paper tiger: he is active, while his opponent is strangely passive. McCain is brimming over with the moral fervor of youth but looks the part of a gray-haired statesman and sage, while Dubya displays the caution of a fragile old man and the wide-eyed ignorance of a mere child. But the Bush campaign is afflicted by far worse than a candidate with a dubious past and a doubtful future: working against them is the obsolescence of the cold war ideology that once energized the conservative rank and file, and the dissolution and alienation of what used to be their base. If the Bush people think they have built a “firewall” in South Carolina through which McCain cannot pass, they have fallen under the spell of their own spinning; against the social and historical forces that are buffeting the GOP, there is no defense. Against the moral certainty of the demagogic McCain, it is the hollowness of their cause as well as their candidate that doomed the Bushies to humiliating defeat in New Hampshire and perhaps many more defeats down the road.
SANCTIMONY & SWAGGER
The booming arrogance of McCain is almost too much to be believed: as a style of politics, his sanctimony and swagger is perfectly suited to the vulgarity of our age: this is a man who threw a “victory party” a full twenty-four hours before the first votes were even cast, and grandly began to speak as if he had already won, boldly declaring that “I don’t know anybody who loses four or five primaries and emerges as the front-runner, I don’t care if he has a billion dollars.” That kind of blustery self-confidence may be obnoxious but who will contradict him? Not the Bushies, who acted as if they had been defeated long before the first returns were in from Dixville Notch. . . .
Hours before the polls opened, Dubya left over a hundred supporters and others “standing in the slush,” as the Manchester Union-Leader put it, after canceling an appearance in Exeter, in the politically important Seacoast area. The cancellation was due to the quaking fear of the Bush campaign that some kind of political protest was about to occur: but no such event ever materialized. As the Union-Leader disdainfully reported: “The downtown area was indeed alive with political activity before Bush arrived, but no major protest was evident.” A few hippie environmentalists stood languidly across the street from the spot where the Smirk was slated to materialize, and Jim Taylor, a Democrat fringe candidate, trolled through the crowd, making a stump speech without a stump. Passing motorists stopped to gawk and banter, and a small squad of Gore-istas chanted mindlessly on the sidelines. No big deal, nothing to be afraid of unless you’re the Bush campaign, stuck with a candidate so heavily scripted that even the remote possibility of a single spontaneous moment is unnerving and threatening. Better to leave your supporters and the media in the slush than to venture out of the Bush bubble and risk losing control. But what are the Bushies so afraid of?
WINNING THROUGH INUNDATION
This is the question that perplexed the voters of New Hampshire, as Bush avoided the state for weeks, disdaining to debate the other candidates in local forums, and making himself relatively unavailable when he did deign to show up at long last. It is almost as if the Bush campaign decided to write off New Hampshire early on, as soon as they realized that there was going to be a real contest in that highly problematic and notoriously cantankerous state. All-too-painfully aware of the weakness of their candidate in New Hampshire’s up-close style of campaigning, the Bush strategists figure that they can win on bigger terrain, using their chief advantage money to flood the airwaves with advertising a strategy that might be called winning through inundation. The Bush “spin” on his New Hampshire humbling is that the Granite State is sui generis, a charming but atypical slice of Americana that hardly measures up to the politically correct standards of the new Republican multiculturalism. But if McCain can tie or best Bush in South Carolina, then he can carry that momentum into California and beyond and all bets are off.
SPLIT IN THE GOP
As the idea of McCain as the GOP standard-bearer begins to take shape as a realistic possibility, the breakup of the two-party system begins with a gigantic fissure dividing Republicans. Conservatives are unlikely to stick around while McCain sings the praises of Big Government and Nine Inch Nails. And if Bush is now likening his insurgent opponent to Al Gore, then Pat Buchanan is sure to take up this very theme in the general election, while expressing it in his own inimitable fashion: the two parties, as Pat likes to put it, are “two wings of the same bird of prey.” Shorn of any effective leadership by Buchanan’s bolt to the Reform Party, the conservative wing of the GOP is crippled, divided, uncertain, and so far powerless to stop McCain in the primaries. Their only hope is in the general election and their only alternative is Buchanan.
THANK GOD AND GREYHOUND HE’S BACK!
It is somehow fitting that, after tangling so spectacularly in the preliminaries, these two, Buchanan and McCain, should meet up again in the general election. “Thank God and Greyhound he’s gone,” brayed McCain at the news of Buchanan’s move to the Reform Party. If he is the GOP nominee, however, it won’t take long for McCain to know that he spoke too soon. Conservatives bitterly resentful of the hijacking of their party will find their voice in Buchanan. McCain’s regurgitating of half-digested smears fed to him by his neoconservative fan club will only enrage the Right and mobilize them behind Buchanan’s banner. McCain’s version of “campaign finance reform” would virtually wipe out the major conservative political action organizations, such as the anti-tax groups and the pro-life movement, or else greatly diminish their effectiveness; his tax proposals are anathema to them and his foreign policy is suspiciously activist with a distinctively Wilsonian–Clintonian ring to it. The triumph of McCain in the primaries now a distinct possibility would have to mean the breakup of the conservative Republican coalition, and the permanent alienation of the Right from the GOP.
THE COMING REALIGNMENT
Caught in the middle, without a clue as to what is happening to him, the hapless Dubya and his puffed-up advisors are being buffeted about by forces they cannot understand or control. As the candidate of the Republican center, Dubya’s sputtering campaign is proof that in the GOP, at least the center cannot hold. The Republican Left, led by McCain, is in the ascendant, and the Republican Right, led by Buchanan, is leaving en masse. This political turmoil is the first sign of the great realignment, a post-cold war shift in the political landscape that augurs an era of revolutionary change. In any seismic event of this magnitude there are bound to be a few casualties and if McCain makes it out to California, then it looks like the GOP may be the first one.
THE FOREIGN POLICY DEBATE
If McCain should overcome the odds and win the nomination, it would be a disaster not only for the Republican Party but also for the peace of the world: I have detailed the candidate’s monstrous foreign policy views in this space before, and interested parties can follow the link for the full story. But look on the bright side: with the added factor of Buchanan in the race, the foreign policy question will be front and center in this race. While most presidential candidates in modern times have had little time for or interest in foreign affairs, both McCain and Buchanan can be counted on to present their diametrically opposed visions of a foreign policy for America without coaxing or compromise. We will, at last, have a real debate on the one vital issue totally in thrall to the vicissitudes of presidential politics: the question of war and peace. Will we retain our republic, or degenerate into an empire? Now there is a question no presidential candidate has posed since the heyday of William Jennings Bryan. As downright scary as the prospect of McCain in the White House may be, the possibility of a really historic debate almost makes it worth the risk.
NONE TOO PRETTY
Like rats leaping from a sinking ship, the political hacks and neoconservative apparatchiks who latched on to the Bush campaign because they saw Dubya as inevitable will follow their instincts. It won’t be long now before they’ll be throwing their Bushian baggage overboard and frantically scrambling to climb on the McCain bandwagon as it rolls out of New Hampshire and on to South Carolina. See how quickly they turn on their former conquering hero. It isn’t going to be pretty.