The Real McCain–and It Isn’t Pretty

CNN’s Jeff Greenfield could hardly believe his ears. After listening to Senator John McCain’s virtriolic “concession speech,” he looked positively bewildered and not a little deflated: “You know, ” he said, “I’m a little stunned, because it is some of the toughest language that a defeated candidate has used.” That’s right, Jeff, and you’d better get used to it. Forget all the high-minded nobler-than-thou sanctimony that Senator McNasty has cloaked his campaign in thus far – now, at long last, we are getting to see and hear the real McCain – and it isn’t pretty.SOME “CONCESSION” SPEECH!

The message put out in the most ungracious concession speech of all time, while ostensibly directed at his grassroots supporters in Michigan and nationwide, reads like a message in thinly-disguised code to his supporters in the media, anticipating and encouraging the latest line of attack. He had been defeated, he averred, by a “negative message of fear” – a code word for South Carolina’s sizable contingent of right-wing Christian Republicans, who mobilized for Bush in record numbers. He had been bested, not in a fair debate, but by the “defeatist tactics of exclusion” – an unmistakable reference to Dubya’s debut in South Carolina at Bob Jones University, which supposedly forbids “interracial dating” and denounces the Church of Rome as a “cult.” The digs got increasingly personal as he ranted on: in contrasting himself with Bush, McCain characterized the dichotomy as one of “experience” versus “pretense.” Contemptuously referring to Bush during the South Carolina debate as if he were little more than an overgrown child – remember his remark about “the grown-up mentality”? – McCain followed up this theme with an explicit challenge to Bush’s electability, openly questioning whether Boy Bush is ready for prime time. Here is a man who needs no intermediaries; he does all his spinning himself. Bush may have chalked up a double-digit victory, but as Greenfield put it: “The implicit message of this concession speech is, George Bush won dirty.” Not only that, but he won due to the efforts of all the wrong people, the party of “fear” – Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition, the anti-abortion movement, and even the biggest pariahs of them all, militant smokers funded by the tobacco industry.


But there was no real need to send this signal; the candidate had barely finished his jeremiad and the journalistic auxiliary of the McCain campaign was already moving into action, starting with the neocon contingent. Writing in the New York Post, John Podhoretz – who once declared that McCain is “basically toast,” and then announced to a breathless world his nomination is “inevitable” – is now saying that the Bush camp’s Pyrhhic victory is nothing to celebrate:

“The results in South Carolina are also bad news for those of us who support conservative causes and principles – because it remains a sad fact that George W. Bush is not strong enough a candidate to defeat Al Gore in the November election. Which means the surge of energy brought to his campaign by last night’s victor will only injure the Republican party if it leads to his nomination at the GOP convention in August.”


Yes, opines Podhoretz, it would be nice if Bush were a better candidate, but he just can’t win – and his South Carolina victory is precisely the reason why. All the wrong people have rallied to his cause: the Christians, the gun nuts, the “ideological special interests” who hold candidate Bush hostage. The core argument of those neoconservatives who still claim fealty to the Right – unlike their lider maximo, Bill Kristol, who last week declared the conservative movement “finished” – is purely pragmatic: “I’ve said it before,” writes Podhoretx, “and I’ll say it again: For those of us who believe that the only thing that matters is beating Al Gore in the fall and bringing the Clinton era to an end, McCain remains the right choice – and the Right choice.” In the Podhoretzian view, the right wing of the Republican Party, to which he pledges his fealty, can only make headway by making itself invisibile, making no demands, and serving as foot-soldiers for whatever Rockefeller Republican scores the highest in the focus group sweepstakes. Never mind what McCain says or advocates, forget campaign finance reform – it’ll never get through Congress – our best hope is to go with the most “attractive” candidate. Attractive to whom, Podhoretz does not say. He is insensible to the idea, insightfully advanced by Robert Novak in his new book, that this blurring of ideology and emphasis on a cult of personality amounts to the Clintonization of the GOP – in effect, the triumph of Clinton. Podhoretz and his pals at the New York Post, as the journalistic voice of the Giuliani wing of the New York Republican Party, naturally completely lack all sense of subtlety or irony.


Another New York Post polemicist, Rod Dreher, dropped all the “conservative” pretenses and let the real face of the Rockefeller Republicans show through the right-wing mask, if only for a moment: The “Shiite Republicans” of the “religious right” who defeated McCain “ought to be as proud of their South Carolina victory as the Russian generals are of conquering Grozny,” he screeches. McCain and his most rabid supporters are overly fond of military analogies, as this absurd comparison of a free election with a violent assault makes all too vividly clear. They refer to what happened in South Carolina as a “scorched earth” policy, and claim that he will wear his southern victory like a albatross around his neck and therefore be defeated in November. Dreher revisits each and every incident of political incorrectness that Bush is supposed to have committed, from the Bob Jones University appearance to a letter put out by Paul Weyrich that dares to question McCain’s “war hero” credentials. Reading Dreher’s column brings to mind old Nelson standing up at the Cow Palace in 1964, pouring out his hatred of the Goldwater Republicans as “bigots” and “extremists,” glorying in the rising chorus of boos.


The serio-comic “news” section of the Post, always entertainingly uninformative, is even more polemical, with reporter Debra Orin opening her story with the words: “It was an ugly win.” The article gets uglier as it goes on, regurgitating each and every known Bushian transgression against political correctness, including incidents of racism, sexism, and homophobia – everything but the fact that Mrs. Dubya has been known to wear fur. I was surprised to see that “looksism” was left off the list, but this may have been just an editorial oversight. In any case, Paul Begala is quoted as gleefully looking forward to a general election in which “Bob Jones will become as well known as Willie Horton.” To the New York wing of the GOP establishment, to be typed as a Christian conservative is the equivalent of being characterized as a ruthless murderer. Their dream is a national version of the Giuliani campaign, a presidential ticket that can carry the Upper West Side. McCain is clearly their man.


As a comical side note, nothing beats the spectacle of presidential candidate Gary Bauer’s surprise endorsement of McCain. When gay columnist Dan Savage licked the doorknobs of Bauer’s Iowa campaign headquarters in an attempt to infect Bauer with the flu – as Savage related in an infamous Salon article – -perhaps he transmitted something else to the candidate, or exacerbated an already existing dementia. For Bauer built his campaign around the issue of opposition to abortion – indeed, as head of the Family Research Council and a leading Religious Right figure, he had made a career out of it. That he should now turn around and endorse a man who once mused to the San Francisco Chronicle that Roe v. Wade wasn’t such a bad Supreme Court decision after all does not strike Dreher as odd; he is, instead, content to pass along Bauer’s self-serving rationale for the sudden turnabout: “My friend Pat Robertson supported Bob Dole four years ago,” says Bauer. “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Bob Dole and John McCain. Too much of our movement is effective at forming circular firing squads.” Here is the little dweeb who attacked Alan Keyes as being practically in league with the Devil for falling into a mosh pit denouncing his former comrades in the conservative movement for “forming circular firing squads”! Are we to be spared nothing?


What is very telling, however, is the comment about there not being a dime’s worth of difference between Dole and McCain. Bauer has a point, and it underscores the essentially opportunist character of the McCain “insurgency.”. For if we take that further, what Bauer is really saying is that there’s isn’t a nickel’s worth of difference between Bush and McCain – and he went with the likely winner. With the instinct of natural-born opportunists, the creepy Bauer and his neoconservative friends and sponsors have jumped on board the McCain bandwagon, along with the Log Cabin Republicans, Representative Pete King of Long Island, and the California Secretary of State, in a grand alliance of “reformers” who want to “take back” the party – from whom, or what, is not yet made clear by the candidate. He leaves that to his surrogates, writing in the New York Post, who yelp about Bush as the prisoner of “the far right.”


What is especially striking about this primary election season is the degree to which both Republican candidates are willing to go to claim the mantle of “reform.” This theme was first appropriated by McCain in New Hampshire, and then later (and less credibly) claimed by Bush, and suddenly a new question was added to the exit polls: “Which candidate best represents the idea of reform?” A specter is haunting this primary election season – the specter of the real Reform Party.


All those worshipful reporters were so mesmerized by their idol on board the Doubletalk Express that they were shocked – shocked! – that he could ever “go negative.” That is why they were so taken aback by his ungracious South Carolina concession speech. They must have forgotten how McCain went “negative” on Buchanan, calling him a “Nazi,” an “anti-Semite” and accusing the author of “A Republic, Not an Empire” of “betraying” the veterans who fought in World War II because he cited well-known historians who questioned our entry into that conflict. Or perhaps “going negative” and flinging mud is okay – depending on who gets hit. Relentlessly smeared and ridiculed in the media, subjected to an invasion by mega-phony Donald Trump – and a carefully-staged and choreographed walkout by the feather boa-bedecked wrestler and his handpicked national chairman – the Reform Party represents a real threat to the status quo that cannot be permitted, especially if Pat Buchanan is anywhere within reach of its presidential nomination.


Now the Bush campaign will be treated to much the same treatment as the Buchanan campaign was and is being subjected to: the professional “extremist”-hunters will come out of the woodwork, and the list of politically incorrect Bush supporters will be drawn up as an indictment – although the McCain campaign, as the Bushies and professional “extremist”-hunters point out, is not immune on that score, with the ties of McCain campaign consultant Ricard Quinn to the Southern Partisan.


The appeal of the phony McCain “insurgency” to the New York-Beltway-based neoconservatives is best expressed in Bill Kristol’s screed, “After South Carolina,” in which he tries to rally the troops in the wake of what would appear to be a major setback to their cause. Painting the McCain crusade as an effort by outsiders to reinvigorate a GOP establishment that is practically moribund, he writes:

“If Bush prevails, the rebellious impulse embodied by the McCain campaign will reemerge after a Bush general election defeat, or for that matter, during a Bush presidency. If McCain is the nominee, he will have to give shape to the inchoate movement he finds himself leading, and give content to the embryonic message he is grappling to articulate. In either case, the battle for the GOP nomination may effectively be resolved within the next 48 hours. The struggle over the Republican future has just begun.”


Kristol and the neoconservatives have always despised all manifestations of populism as reactionary and even dangerous: Perot and Buchanan were exiled to the fever swamps and denounced as neofascist demagogues for mobilizing “the politics of resentment” against the political elites. In McCain’s popular insurgency, however, they see the opportunity to not only co-opt and defang the populist danger, but also, as Kristol puts it, to “give content to the embryonic message” of McCain’s variety of erasatz “reform.” With the support of such notable “reformers” as Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Lawrence Eagleburger, and Henry Kissinger, what Kristol & Company want to “reform” is a foreign policy that, even under the warlike Clinton, they see as altogether too peaceful. These old Cold Warriors look forward to the re-starting of the Cold War, with Putin’s Russia as a revamped and revived Evil Empire, and figure they can ride to power on the coattails of a phony “populist” crusader – and that is about the extent of their interest in the subject of “reform.”


With Big Government “national greatness” conservatism as their domestic program, and unabashed militarism as the leitmotif of a campaign to “reform” the world – in the name of “democracy” and “American values,” of course – the McCain campaign is embarked on a serious challenge to the GOP Establishment that will last well beyond South Carolina and Michigan. While it is true that there is not a dime’s worth of difference between Bush and McCain, a civil war is always the most vicious – and this internecine dispute between battling factions of the Establishment has every possibility of tearing the GOP apart. If McCain pulls it off in Michigan, chalks up a big margin in Arizona, and makes it to California, Bush is in real trouble. McCain boasted that if he won in South Carolina he would be “unstoppable.” Well, he lost – but may still be unstoppable. As the media beats the drums for their favorite, and the GOP Establishment begins to doubt the ability of their candidate to stand the test, anything could happen in this volatile election season – and probably it will. Whatever happens, of one thing we can be sure: the marriage between the conservative movement and the Republican Party is increasingly stormy – and could end in divorce before November.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].