Bill Kristol writes a provocative column today suggesting that McCain may be the last best hope of the GOP in the fall. In particular, he cites three events from the last week--Obama’s huge loss in WVa, the gay-marriage ruling from the California Supreme Court, and the speech from Bush in Jerusalem that Obama took way too personally--that should do much to improve McCain’s chances in the fall. Yet for all this sound evidence and analysis, his column does not appear to offer much by way of hope (if I may be forgiven for using that most overused word from this election cycle) for the down-ticket.
In this, he may be right from the point of view of mere observation and reporting. But then again, perhaps not. Perhaps the damage done to the Republican brand is too far gone to expect "McCain exceptionalism." Let’s suppose for a moment that this is true and despite Obama’s clear weaknesses, McCain--by virtue of the fact that he’s got an (R) after his name--is already paddling upstream against a swift current. Then what? Will it be enough to show that he is "a different kind of Republican?"
I don’t think so. I begin to think that McCain is going to have to begin to make a case not only for himself but also for the GOP in general--certainly if he means to have a successful presidency but perhaps, also, if he means to have any presidency at all. What would this look like? For one thing, it will mean explaining, rather than simply asserting, some of the fundamental principles of the GOP. It means an implicit criticism of those Republicans in our immediate past who could not or who would not do the same. It would also mean anticipating, understanding and answering the prejudices of those who think they do not like the GOP.
But there’s something more. It is also going to mean that McCain will need to highlight the general problems with Democrats. After all, Democrats only poll higher in terms of their favorable ratings by way of comparison with the Republicans. And Republicans, at least in part, poll poorly because of the ways they have disaffected their base. Congress as a whole, however, polls very, very low. I am not sure if it’s still the case, but it was true at one point that Congress had poorer numbers even than President Bush. Some have suggested that this may be because people forget that Democrats are in charge there (of course, they should be reminded) . . . but whatever the explanation, there’s an opening for McCain. By attacking the "do-nothing" pathetic and Democrat Congress of this session he can acknowledge the political frustrations of the electorate, delight his conservative base, and point the way forward to a better, chastened, and invigorated Republican majority. He may not get it--at least not right away. But he has the potential to set something into motion. He should not forget that he’s running for "President" not "Emperor." He’s going to need friends once he gets there.