The End of the Affair

Gregory Dunn

March 1, 2000

The handwriting, as they say, is on the wall. Regardless if McCain throws in the towel or soldiers on in his picaresque drive to the Republican convention, his many defeats on Super Tuesday show that the Straight Talk Express is low on fuel. Yet the end of the strange affair of the Arizona senator should provide George W. Bush with two lessons for the beginning of his fight for the presidency, if he is willing to learn.

First, Americans love America and are zealous to see her honored, especially after the Clinton presidency. Although they did not feel strongly enough about his disgraces to want him removed from office (hence their high-approval rating of his job), they did not feel altogether good about it (hence their low opinion of him as a man). Enter McCain, a war hero with a compelling story of courage and unselfconscious patriotism, whose straight-talking persona seemed the opposite of Clinton’s artifice and dissembling. McCain may have his quirks, but one believes he would not willfully disgrace the nation.

Further, as Americans love America, they respond to rhetoric that gives form and content to that love. And McCain, at least early in his campaign, did just that. He repeated G. K. Chesterton’s observation that America is "a nation with the soul of a church," meaning that America is fundamentally an idea, a belief in, as McCain put it, "the principles of liberty, opportunity, and equality." What is more, McCain called for a renewal of citizenship, "our acceptance of–and our protection of–these principles." In this way, McCain articulated the idea of America in a concrete manner that inspired support in a way that mere policy proposals never can.

Second, a political party thrives only on principled positions articulated from within that party. Republicans, if they are to win in November, must appeal to Independents and Democrats, but only by persuading them to support Republican principles, not by changing their principles to suit Democrats and Independents. This was Ronald Reagan’s winning strategy. This was Lincoln’s before him.

This is not McCain’s strategy. His grave error is abandoning a distinctively Republican posture in his rush to the ideological center-left to woo Independents and Democrats to his cause. He is running not so much as an outsider to his party but as its opponent. This strategy worked well in open primaries with mercurial electorates, such as Michigan’s. It failed in closed primaries with more predictable electorates, such as Ohio’s. And it would have failed in the general election, with demoralized Republicans staying home, Democrats naturally voting Democratic, and Independents, seeing no clear difference between McCain and Gore, voting erratically.

Thus Bush’s agenda heading toward the convention and, further, on to November: First, he must speak to Americans of America–explaining to them the idea of America, reminding them of her principles of liberty and equality, and fanning to flame their love of her. Second, he must emphasize that these principles are best understood and defended by the Republican party over against the Democratic, that is, he must be fearlessly partisan in his rhetoric, urging Americans to demonstrate their love for America and their dedication to her principles by voting–and becoming–Republicans. And he must do it, for this election promises to be the most ideological in recent memory, and our booming economy (assuming it is still booming come November) promises an uphill battle against incumbents. If Bush wins, it will be on principle, both Republican and American.

Gregory Dunn is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.