By Mark Mellman - 02/07/07 12:00 AM EST
Eight years ago Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) burst onto the national scene, winning the New Hampshire primary and securing victories in six subsequent contests. Though ultimately losing the Republican nomination, McCain emerged as a national figure so popular he is often considered the frontrunner for the slot in 2008.
But the John McCain of 2008 will be quite unlike the McCain of 2000, and those differences will render him far less formidable. In 2000, three factors propelled McCain to the forefront:
McCain’s straight talk and politics of joyful insurgency, along with Mike Murphy’s humor, made the senator a unique personality and the Straight Talk Express the bus of choice for reporters, who communicated their affection to the electorate.
McCain’s war-hero biography was a compelling story in 2000, and assumed greater significance after Sept. 11, 2001 by giving Americans confidence in his ability to deal with national security.
McCain’s image of independence, welded to a message of reform, appealed to those tired of politics as usual.
All this will look quite different as we move to 2008.
First, McCain is no longer the happy warrior. Whether because the times are vastly more serious or because McCain, as the frontrunner, has so much more to lose, he wears the weight of the world on his shoulders and does not wear it well. Gone is the upbeat, optimistic candidate always willing to joke at his own expense; he’s been replaced by a dour downer of a guy. Watching his recent Sunday-morning appearances, one is struck by McCain’s hollowed-out appearance, forlorn demeanor, and general discomfort with his own answers. Candidates communicate an emotional state that influences voters. They rallied around the breezy, uplifting McCain, but will likely reject the current, world-weary version.
The McCain of old also worked the press hard, creating an open and entertaining interchange that bewitched many a reporter. His good humor, devil-may-care attitude and willingness to say whatever came to his mind resulted in coverage so fawning that the press began reporting on their own uniquely favorable coverage of the Arizonan. Haley Barbour accused the media of “slobbering” on McCain, while the candidate himself jokingly referred to the press as his “base.” Now, with his mood altered, his words more carefully chosen, those good old days will be hard to re-create.
McCain’s independence also helped fuel his rise, but he sacrificed that on the altar of George Bush’s war. In truth, McCain’s willingness to go his own way was always overstated. Initially, he owed that image to his stand on campaign-finance reform, a position that constituted penance for his sins with Charles Keating. Whatever public perception was in 2000, on the most important issue of the day, McCain has been a lackey for the president. In addition, his well-publicized efforts to regain the affections of Falwell and Robertson after having demonstrated his “independence” by attacking them in 2000 further eroded the McCain myth. On the substantive side, “reform” itself no longer enjoys pride of place on the McCain agenda.
Of course, John McCain remains a war hero, though that status means far less than it did. In 2000 the story was new and riveting. Today it is old hat, with more recent exploits becoming concomitantly more important in shaping voters’ evaluations. McCain’s standing on national security evaporated in the heat of the Iraqi deserts, where, like Bush, he has consistently gotten it wrong. As the prime exponent of the surge, McCain is more likely to appear foolish than heroic.
The McCain of 2000 is no longer with us. Today’s John McCain is a pale shadow of his former self.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.