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When Right Is Wrong

I think John McCain is making a big mistake. And I'm not just saying that because I'm a liberal. McCain--as every political junkie knows--has been aggressively mending fences with the conservative establishment he once loathed. He's giving the commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University; he has endorsed South Dakota's anti-abortion law and the teaching of creationism in schools; he has lavishly praised President Bush; he has even lavishly praised President Bush's parents.

The strategy is simple. When he ran for president in 2000, McCain steamrolled Bush among Independents but lost, because he got creamed among Republicans. With some states moving to make it harder for non-Republicans to vote in GOP primaries, he would likely do even worse in 2008. If McCain leaves a big hole on his right, the early primaries will probably whittle the field down to him and someone more conservative, as they did in 2000. And, when the party's base consolidates around Mr. X, Mr. X will be almost impossible to beat.

If, on the other hand, McCain makes sure there is no Mr. X, he can win. Recent GOP history shows that you don't have to be beloved by the conservative base to claim the nomination; you just have to be acceptable. In 1988, movement conservatives didn't swoon over George H.W. Bush. In 1996, they didn't swoon over Bob Dole. But Bush and Dole passed enough litmus tests and won enough endorsements to prevent the right from consolidating around anyone else. Like Democrats, Republicans seek ideological purity. But, unlike Democrats, they respect hierarchy. Bush and Dole were next in line, and, once they proved ideologically acceptable enough, order prevailed.

In his quest to become ideologically acceptable, McCain has several things going for him. For starters, as Byron York has noted in these pages ("Fortunate Son," December 12, 2005), the issue that drove the right berserk in 2004--McCain's support for campaign finance reform--is old news now. Second, a huge new issue has emerged--the war on terrorism--on which McCain's hawkishness suits the Republican base. Third, with the deficit exploding, the right is moving away from its cut-taxes-and-the-deficit-be-damned stance of a few years ago and back toward the anti-deficit posture it assumed in the mid-'90s. (For more than two decades now, these phases have followed one another as night follows day: Republicans pass massive tax cuts, saying that deficits don't really matter. Then, once deficits get big enough, they shift course and downplay tax-cutting in favor of deficit-reduction--until the deficit goes down, at which time the cycle begins again). Since McCain is more a deficit hawk than a tax-cutter, he's more in tune with the conservative base today than he was in 2000--when all Republicans could think about was how to free multi-millionaires from the estate tax.

So McCain may well succeed and become the candidate of the Republican establishment. The problem is that, in 2008, that could be a poisoned chalice. For starters, parties have enormous difficulty winning three straight presidential elections. In the last half-century, Richard Nixon (1960), Hubert Humphrey (1968), Gerald Ford (1976), and Al Gore (2000) have failed. Only George H. W. Bush (1988) succeeded. Even in the best of circumstances, the public grows tired of one-party rule. And, for the GOP, 2008 will almost certainly not be the best of circumstances. Today, public alienation is as high as at any time since 1994. And, unlike 1994, things are not likely to improve. The single biggest reason is Iraq, which won't go away any time soon, and, tragically, is more likely to get worse than better. What's more, George W. Bush's rapidly approaching lame-duck status, and the increasing power of congressional Democrats, means legislative gridlock and congressional investigations are highly likely for the next two and a half years.

The best precedent for the coming period is the mid-'70s, when military defeat combined with political scandal to produce an unusually foul public mood. At such moments, outsiders do best. In 1976, Jimmy Carter became the first anti-Washington candidate elected president since the beginning of the cold war. And, in 2008, anti-Washington populism will likely play extremely well again. Since early 2002, the percentage of Americans expressing an unfavorable view of the GOP has risen 20 points, and, strikingly, the percentage expressing an unfavorable view of Democrats has risen 9 points as well.

In 2000, anti-Washington populism was McCain's forte. Describing his battle against the political establishment, he called himself "Luke Skywalker fighting his way out of the Death Star." But, in 2008, if all goes according to plan, he'll be piloting the Death Star. It's not just that he'll be the Republican nominee. As part of his campaign to woo conservatives, he has embraced Bush so tightly that he will find it hard to portray himself as the candidate of radical change. And his pandering to the religious right has already undermined his reputation for fearless, damn-the-torpedoes truth-telling. It's one thing to say he's a social conservative; it's another to embrace figures like Falwell, whom the old John McCain clearly reviled.

Ideologically, the most fertile populist ground in 2008 will likely be antiwar and anti-immigration. That's where many of the old Ross Perot voters--who have been floating grumpily between the parties since the cold war's end--will likely be. McCain can't win them on issues--since he's a die-hard Iraq hawk and a highminded immigration dove. He has to win them on style--on his image as a lone crusader fighting the corrupt fat cats in Washington. But that will be much harder if those fat cats are supporting his campaign.

So what should McCain do? He should still seek the Republican nomination--but take more care not to disfigure his public persona in the process. And, if he loses as a result, he should bolt the party, choose a respected Democrat as his running mate, and run as an Independent. To be sure, conventional wisdom says Independents can never win. But, in 2008, the public could be so alienated and the likely nominees so polarizing (think Hillary Clinton and George Allen) that it might just work. America's next president will likely be the candidate who best embodies change. And, in that environment, John McCain should think twice before turning himself into the candidate of more of the same.

By Peter Beinart