Leader Blues

Friday, February 08, 2008

EDITORIAL >>McCain up, Hillary down

A year ago, as this interminable presidential campaign was taking shape, the easy bet was that Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton would battle for the office this fall. Half of that expectation has now been realized, but the other half seems more and more unlikely. Barring a cataclysmic event, McCain will be the Republican nominee, but that cataclysm may already have befallen Sen. Clinton.

Despite her impressive victories Tuesday in Arkansas, New York, California and Massachusetts, her campaign is flagging in the face of a swelling crusade for the young Illinois senator, Barack Obama. If she wins at the convention it may be only because party leaders pulled all the levers required, corralling nearly all the superdelegates — those not chosen by the voters — and seating contested delegations (hers) from Florida and Michigan, which had flouted party rules and held early primaries. It may require all of that for Sen. Clinton to win the nomination although she still leads with delegates going into today’s caucuses in Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington.

Every political observer has been stunned by the upheavals on both sides since last summer, when McCain’s campaign nosedived and Clinton’s was ascendant, but we ought to have seen it coming.

McCain has a long history of pratfalls and recovery. He was a feckless warrior in the Vietnam War, but he stood tall as a prisoner of war by refusing to abandon his comrades when strings were pulled to bring him home. He came home a hero. His congressional career nosedived when his cozy relationship with the biggest savings-and-loan crook embroiled him in scandal. The Senate rebuked McCain and the rest of the “Keating Five” but while the other four senators fell, he survived and rebuilt his Senate career. He was humiliated by George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race, but his steadfast support of the Iraq war cemented his standing with the party’s hawks.

He was a trifle lucky, too, with his opponents in the Republican slugfest: A New York mayor who was left of the Democrats on social issues and who led a ribald personal life and an administration tainted by scandal; a liberal Massachusetts governor who transformed himself into a conservative when he announced for president and whose religion was considered idolatrous by the nation’s evangelicals; a Midwestern senator with a solid conservative pedigree but who put his own cheerleaders to sleep when he spoke; a former Wisconsin governor and Bush cabinet member who could not convince even his wife that he was serious; three terminally boring congressmen; and our own hero, Mike Huckabee, who governed liberally for 10 years but changed his position on everything but abortion and gays when he got a good look at the Republican landscape.

All of their candidacies capsized from those transparent weaknesses — all except Huckabee, who stays in the race to flex his credentials as McCain’s running mate, and Congressman Ron Paul, who stays in the race because he is. . . well, Ron Paul. Huckabee has a chance to win another small primary or two — maybe Louisiana today — but he will continue to make nice over McCain to build his appeal that he is the man who could help McCain win the South. If McCain needs Huckabee to win the South he is in deeper trouble than he imagines.

The media are full of speculation about McCain’s inability to win over the hysterical wings of his party — those who consider it heresy that he would not vote for Bush’s tax cuts until spending was brought under control, that he would not join the crusade against undocumented Mexican immigrants and that he worked to stanch the buying and selling of politicians by limiting political gifts. It is much ado about nothing. The party, including wingnuts like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, will be on board this fall.

Sen. Clinton’s problem is more baffling. How can she eclipse Obama’s rising star without doing herself and the party immense harm? He goes into the conservative western states and record-breaking crowds — all white — throng to hear him and touch his hem. The highly educated and upper-income Democrats vote for him in lopsided numbers. Money flows into his campaign like the biblical flood. In caucus states, where enthusiasm trumps breadth, he wins by landslides. Clinton can make a last stand in the huge blue-collar states of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Obama is high on rhetoric and vague on issues, but he strikes a chord like no politician since — well, since William Jennings Bryan. Are we melodramatic?

Six long months before the conventions, the Republicans need to lengthen this campaign and the Democrats need to shorten it. McCain can continue to build enthusiasm and court attention by beating up on Huckabee and Ron Paul until he finally goes over the top in delegates, but that small suspense will be over this month. If you are a Democrat, you can only hope for a fairly rapid conclusion, one way or the other, so that the mending can begin.