When successful Republican presidential candidates talk about their base, they're usually talking about the GOP's social conservatives. When Arizona Sen. John McCain talks about his base, he's referring to the mainstream media.
Which helps explain two things. One, why McCain was not a successful Republican presidential candidate eight years ago. Two, why he's taken steps over the last few years to get right with the religious right.
Will it work? As Democrats cogitate over Barack Obama's challenge to front-runner Hillary Clinton, will the new McCain complicate matters for the old McCain and threaten his front-runner status among Republicans?
For most successful candidates, politics is about addition, not subtraction. In this presidential campaign, however, McCain is involved in something of a zero-sum game. Securing a traditional GOP base could come at the expense of losing his old media base.
In 2000, his admirers in the mainstream media loved the tough-talking war hero of "Straight Talk Express." The Arizona maverick opposed George Bush and famously railed against "agents of intolerance" like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other conservative religious leaders. Since then, he's been a conquering hero of Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show," a Republican worthy of puff-ball questioning. But McCain has committed two unpardonable sins in the eyes of the media clerisy. He has backed Bush's Iraq war to the hilt and gone out of his way to make up with Falwell and religious conservatives. Sacre bleu!
McCain's wooing of GOP social conservatives has not been pretty to watch. And, if recent developments are any guide, the effort might prove unproductive.
Recently, perhaps the most influential Christian conservative gave McCain a stiff-bristled brushoff. "Speaking as a private individual, I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances," said Focus on the Family's James Dobson in a radio interview. "He is not in favor of traditional marriage and I pray that we will not get stuck with him."
McCain's alleged opposition to traditional marriage would probably astonish the most determined McCain watcher. Didn't he, after all, favor a traditional marriage measure that was on the Arizona ballot last November? Why, yes, he did. But right before Dobson let loose, his radio-show host had run a clip of McCain telling "Hardball" host Chris Matthews, "I think, uh ... I think that gay marriage should be allowed if there's a ceremony kind of thing, if you wanna call it that ... I don't have any problem with that."
McCain had, indeed, uttered those exact words before the Iowa State University crowd last fall, but—well, isn't there always a but? A quotation yanked out of context or something said in humor is treated seriously. In this case, "but" only highlights McCain's problem courting the GOP's traditional-values base.
In the same sentence that Dobson's radio interviewer found so damning, McCain had appended his own but: "...but I do believe in preserving the sanctity of the union between man and woman." Yes, it made for an illogical sentence, and McCain and his handler realized they had a damage-control problem. After the next break, a student asked about a farm issue and McCain answered it. But before moving to the next question he said, "Could I just mention one other thing? On the issue of the gay marriage, I believe if people want to have private ceremonies, that's fine. I do not believe that gay marriages should be legal."
The students knew they were watching a grown man kiss a Pander Bear and booed. Better to just tell everybody what you really believe rather than try to please everybody.
What we now know, thanks to a penetrating McCain profile by Todd Purdum in February's Vanity Fair, is what happened before and after McCain's do-over on gay marriage. During the first break, his consultant John Weaver had moved in and whispered in the senator's ear. And after McCain had issued his clarification? Let's have Purdum tell it, because he was there: "Moments later, McCain remounts the stage for the program's final segment, and he bores into Weaver, standing quietly in the wings, with a cold look that seems to mingle irritation at Weaver's whispered advice with regret that he took it, and demands, almost hisses, 'Did I fix it? Did I fix it?'"
Last week, Dobson provided an important answer. It could even prove the final answer.