There is a Shakespearean tragic quality to the fate of Senator John McCain
which is missing from his one time rival for the Presidency of the United States, George W. Bush
. Bush's dominant character traits, whether plain stupidity, or sheer pigheadedness, do not lend themselves to high personal drama. McCain, on the other hand, could have had it all, but was, in the end, brought low by tragic misjudgement and his own character flaws.
For a while, back in the days of the Republican Party primary running up to the 2000 presidential elections, it looked like it would be the maverick Senator from Arizona, and not George Bush, who would go on to face Vice-president Al Gore
in the general election. His "Straight Talk Express" had the press thoroughly charmed. And his bipartisan image appealed to many in the wake of the bitter trench warfare of the Clinton-Lewinsky
affair. A war hero who had spent years in North Vietnamese captivity, an experienced legislator, and a politician with a reputation for reaching across the aisle, he seemed the perfect choice to heal the widening rift in the American body politic.
But it was not to be. As the South Carolina primary came around, the machinery of Bush's election mastermind, Karl Rove
, had kicked into gear. Smears, innuendo, and outright lies, were disseminated to the voting public with Machiavellian skill and ruthlessness. And Bush ended up triumphant. The tactics employed by the Bush campaign, including spreading the rumour, in this Southern state, that McCain's adopted Bangladeshi daughter was in fact his illegitimate child with a black woman, seemed to cement a deep loathing for the later president. Many expected McCain to move even further towards the role of the leader of the internal Republican Party opposition, and making another run for the presidency on a centrist platform, perhaps even as a de facto independent.
There is no way of knowing how viable such a strategy would have been. Third party campaigns for the White House, lacking the backing of an established party machinery, and more often than not with limited funds, are notoriously Quixotic undertakings. However, paired with an independently wealthy Vice-presidential candidate on the ticket, such as the centrist mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg
, who is now contemplating a bid for the office himself, such a bid might well have been a formidable one under the current circumstances. But conventional wisdom pointed to such a strategy being a long shot, at best. The safer route to the presidency seemed to run through the Republican primary.
There was however a big problem. Following Nixon
's Southern strategy, which had started the process of turning the once solidly Democratic South, still carrying a grudge against Lincoln
's Civil War Republican Party after all these years, into a Republican stronghold, and Reagan
's alliance with what was to become the Religious Right, the bedrock of the Party, the activist base, and the most motivated primary voters, were deeply hostile towards what they saw as McCain's socially liberal stances on such core issues as abortion and the separation of church and state.
To have any hope of winning these voters over, there seemed few alternatives to moving to the right. The hope was that he could successfully court the hardcore and religious right, while at the same time not driving away the independent voters who would be key in securing a general election. It was an almost impossible balancing act, more or less doomed to come off as disingenuous pandering to the one side, and loathsome to the other. Having rolled the dice though, there was no turning back. The road to victory now lay in establishing himself as the fait accompli candidate, the all but crowned successor, before any rival candidates could even get their campaigns off the ground.
This is where the ever more unpopular Iraq war, which otherwise might have been a political boon, became instead a bleeding political ulcer. Forced by primary electoral logic, and his character, prone to belligerence, and disposed towards military action, McCain cleaved ever closer to the president he previously had given every indication of detesting, literally embracing his old Nemesis. It was a strategy meant to anchor him to the establishment. It turned out to be an anchor dragging him down. No amount of pandering to the gatekeepers of the religious right could expunge their distrust of him. And the attempt to do so, and carrying the banner of an ever more unpopular administration, and the seemingly interminable and hopeless war in Iraq, drove away what support he had among moderates.
A campaign that had been floundering for some time, reached a temporary, and quite likely terminal, nadir last night, when, having raised an anaemic $11.2 million in the last three months, with a disastrous $2 million cash on hand for his presidential bid, it was forced to lay off more than 50 staffers, with more to follow. Said Terry Nelson
, McCain's campaign manager: "At one point, we believed that we would raise over $100 million during this calendar year, and we constructed a campaign that was based on that assumption. That proved to be wrong."
McCain's standing in the polls has been on a downward trajectory of late, with single digit support in some surveys of early primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina, well behind former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani
, the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney
, and the former senator, and Law and Order actor Fred Thompson
, who has not even officially entered the race .
While these setbacks are unlikely to persuade McCain to drop out of the race any time soon, it is now all but certain that he will not win his party's primary, or go on to become the next president. There are few agonies to match having to second guess the decisions leading to a failure for the rest of your days. This is McCain's fate - forced to live out what remains of his political life contemplating that most terrible thought - He coulda been a contender...