Sen. John McCain is foredoomed. It's not that he isn't an attractive candidate. In many ways, he is. It's just that his candidacy's core constituency is the press. He has no base.
Let me say up front that Texas Gov. George W. Bush is my first cousin and a good friend. One might argue that my view of McCain is slanted as a result. But put family affiliations aside for a moment and consider the dynamics of the GOP presidential primary nomination process.
The Republican Party electorate?those who actually vote in primaries and attend caucuses?is comprised of three key constituencies. The first and most important of these is cultural conservatives. Cultural conservatives nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, nearly wrestled the nomination away from Richard Nixon in Miami in 1968, nearly defeated President Gerald Ford's nomination in 1976 and finally took control of the GOP for good in 1980 with the nomination and election of Ronald Reagan.
Cultural conservatives now make up 45-55 percent of the primary voters and caucus attenders in any given state. They are most numerous in Southern states and in states west of the Mississippi River. They have become, through hard work and sheer determination, the heart and soul of the GOP. Their concerns are what matters in GOP primaries and caucuses.
What they are concerned about is what they perceive to be the decline of the popular culture in the broadest sense; from the cavalier acceptance of abortion as birth control to the moral relativism of public education to the ceaseless and gratuitous violence of the entertainment industry. The foundation of their political involvement is moral, not economic. They don't look to politics to raise their standard of living. Their involvement in politics is driven by a belief that standards of acceptable behavior and conduct have collapsed.
Gov. Bush's message is aimed squarely at this constituency. He talks about "prosperity with a purpose" and "changing the culture back." He calls for "moral instruction" in public schools and makes no secret of his opposition to abortion. Bush can afford to focus on cultural conservatives because he enjoys overwhelming support among the second most important GOP constituency?traditional Republicans.
Traditional Republicans comprise roughly 35-45 percent of the primary voters in any given state. They are most numerous in the Northeastern and Midwestern states, less influential elsewhere. Traditional Republicans are most concerned about America's role in the world and economic issues. They are internationalist, pro-business and pragmatic in their approach. They don't share the cultural conservative passion for what used to be called "social issues."
President Bush was the standard-bearer of traditional Republicans in 1980, 1988 and 1992 and, brand-loyal, they have rallied to his son's candidacy. This loyalty has already ended the presidential candidacies of John Kasich, Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole. Try as they might and try as they did, they couldn't make a dent in Bush's support among this group. Neither will McCain.
The third key constituency is what might be called economic libertarians. They comprise roughly five-10 percent of the primary voters and caucus attenders, but they have a disproportionate influence because of their clout in Washington and the conservative media. The megaphone for this constituency is the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Other cheerleaders include a host of foundations and think tanks, all of them generously underwritten by corporations and wealthy individuals.
The champions of economic libertarians have long been Jack Kemp (who got 10 percent of the votes in the 1988 presidential primaries) and Steve Forbes (who got 10 percent of the votes in the 1996 primaries and is lagging in the polls this time around). Economic libertarians pay lip service to cultural issues, but the truth is they don't really much care. Their passion is reserved for flat taxes, Hayek-economics and enterprise zones. They believe that capitalism is a religion unto itself.
John McCain's problem is that he is neither of nor for any of these constituencies. Instead, he campaigns as an "independent" and a "maverick" (on a campaign bus self-consciously called "The Straight Talk Express"). That resonates with the press corps, but does nothing to excite the three major constituencies.
Without Bush in the race, McCain might make a plausible champion of traditional Republican values. He's an internationalist, pro-business and pragmatic on social issues. But with Bush in the race, he can't get any traction, as his recent withdrawal from Iowa showed. He's made no headway with traditional Republicans anywhere save New Hampshire. He even trails Bush in his home state of Arizona.
McCain might have recast his candidacy to better fit the concerns of the dominant cultural conservative wing of the GOP, as Steve Forbes has done, but he has instead chosen two issues?campaign finance reform and tobacco regulation?that leave them stone cold. Indeed, most Republicans think campaign finance reform is a Democratic-designed political straitjacket. They believe money is what keeps them competitive.
If you believe what you read in the Washington/New York press, you might think that John McCain poses a significant threat to George W. Bush's presidential ambitions. In reality, McCain is the best thing to happen to Bush since the first $50 million came cascading through the mail slots in Austin.
The only threat to Bush's nomination is a candidate who can rally the cultural conservative wing of the party around his or her candidacy. Steve Forbes is the only candidate remaining who is even remotely capable of getting that done. McCain's supposed surge?which is nonexistent in every state except New Hampshire, where Independents can vote in the state's first-in-the-nation primary?denies Forbes the media attention he needs to communicate with cultural conservative voters.
Give cultural conservatives a choice between Bush and McCain and they'll choose Bush every time. If the choice were between Bush and Forbes, they'd probably still choose Bush, but at least Forbes could engage Bush politically and draw distinctions. Two's company, three's a crowd. With McCain running second, Forbes gets lost in the crowd.
Robert Squier, the veteran Democratic political consultant, said the other day that the Republican primary race and the Democratic primary race were fundamentally different because the Democratic challenger (Bill Bradley) had a real base of support within his party to draw on, whereas the Republican challenger (McCain) did not. Squier said he had mentioned this to a couple of his friends in the political press corps, but that they had not taken him seriously. They should have. He had it exactly right.