Monday, August 28, 2006

Talk of McCain 'Makeover' Silly

The Washington Post is talking about a McCain Makeover. Frankly, that's silly talk. McCain may be making changes in emphases and mending fences with those who once hated him. But nothing fundamental about the Arizona conservative has changed.

Something else is going on here.

In recent decades, Republican presidential politics has looked more like the successor planning for which General Election is heralded than conventional politics.

Like GE, which has even brought its penchant for thorough transition planning to designating the key personalities on its major NBC programming (i.e., Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams, Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien, Katie Couric to oops), Republicans have recently operated on an informal succession plan that usually rewards the presidential candidate whose "turn" is seen to be next.

Ronald Reagan was barely beaten by incumbent Gerald Ford in the 1976 fight for the Republican nomination. Reagan loyally campaigned for Ford that fall and, while he faced opposition, was deemed the heir apparent for 1980 to face off against the guy who beat Ford, Jimmy Carter.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush joined a small group of sitting US Veeps to be nominated for President and became the first one since Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson to immediately follow the President under whom he served.

Bush the Elder edged out Senator Bob Dole to secure the GOP nomination in '88 and, as Reagan was to Ford, Dole played the loyal soldier to Bush. Bush, of course, lost to Bill Clinton in his 1992 re-election bid and in 1996, who was the heir apparent for the GOP? Bob Dole.

In 2000, the Republicans didn't go with an altogether person. But George W. Bush appealed to a public grown weary of the melodrama of the Clinton years and nostalgic for his father's less complicated persona.

Republican primary voters are much more likely to turn to familiar old hands who have accepted second- and third-fiddle status while waiting their turn to get to the top of a corporate-like Monkey Move Up than are Democrats. It's the Dems who, in the past three decades, have been more prone to nominating unknown outsiders like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

So, it comes as no surprise that Senator John McCain, once seen as the James Dean of the Republican Party, is making nice with the Republican establishment and that it, in turn, appears to be embracing him. It is, after all, the Arizona senator's turn, according to the GOP's succession scheme.

That some Republicans have been slow to come McCain's way is a bit surprising. Like other recent nominees, McCain is a known commodity. Like Bush the Elder and Bob Dole, he's a certifiable war hero. He's also one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, in spite of his association with campaign finance reform, considered anathema to many Republicans. If anything, McCain has been more hawkish than the President on the war in Iraq. He's a proven vote-getter who, in the past at least, might have knitted together a Reagan-like coalition for the GOP, rather than relying on the get-out-our-vote, who-cares-about-expanding-the-base approach of Karl Rove.

Frankly, I think of McCain's current efforts at making nice with GOP leaders as much less a matter of engaging in a makeover as enacting what has become a reliable Republican rite of succession.

Will 2008 be the year when the Republicans break from their usual succession procedures? It could be. Even among Republicans, there's disenchantment with the current GOP occupants of the White House and Congress. Although McCain is by no means a bosom buddy of the President, he may get swamped by anti-Washington sentiment, pushing a Republican outsider to the fore. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts may be able to combine that anti-Washingtonism with being a next-door neighbor to get an early win against McCain and develop the momentum needed to wrest the nomination from the Arizona senator. (Being from next door has helped more than a few Dems from Massachusetts to get their party's nomination. Think Kennedy, Dukakis, Tsongas, and Kerry. And in 1964, former Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge got an unexpected win in the Republican primary.)

Still, in spite of grumbling from some, McCain has to be considered the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. That he enjoys that status is very much according to GOP form.

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