The McCain Withdrawal: When Reform Trumped Republicanism

Lucas Morel

March 1, 2000

P>Outnumbered by state and delegate counts after the Super Tuesday primaries, Arizona Senator John McCain bowed out of the race for the Republican nomination for president—at least for the moment. What was most telling about his withdrawal was how it differed from that of former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. And it’s a difference that gives the Democrats an edge over the Republicans as they campaign toward the fall election.

As expected, both McCain and Bradley thanked supporters for sticking their electoral necks out for a non-establishment contender. Their swan songs also touted the goals of their respective presidential bids and their significance in the coming conventions and debates over the political future of the nation. These parting shots at the victors cheered supporters without sounding too disappointed in the face of clear rejection at the polls.

But Bradley departed from McCain’s script by declaring his support of both his party and its soon-to-be nominee in decisive fashion. With wife Ernestine at his side, he said of his campaign, “We’re both here today to call it an end,” and then said of Vice President Al Gore, “I will support him in his bid to win the White House.”
McCain would simply say, “I am no longer an active candidate for my party’s nomination for President.” By merely “suspending” his campaign, McCain left open the possibility of a third-party bid down the road, thereby posing a potential threat to the Republican nominee-to-be, Texas Governor George W. Bush.

McCain did congratulate Governor Bush for his victory on Super Tuesday, but in a way that accented Bush’s popularity with Republican regulars in contrast to McCain’s broader appeal to disaffected Republicans, renegade Democrats, and fence-riding Independents—the erstwhile McCain Majority. Remarking of Bush, “He deserves the best wishes of every American. He certainly has mine,” McCain came well short of endorsing his party’s eventual nominee in what is soon to become the most partisan presidential election in recent memory.

Which brings to mind the most significant difference between the Bradley and McCain withdrawal speeches. Aware that this would be his last keynote address of the presidential campaign, Bradley was not afraid to sound partisan: “This country needs Democratic leadership, and I will work to ensure a Democratic White House and Congress.” True, he spoke about “creating a new politics” and included a somewhat veiled critique of Gore’s tough campaign style. But without a single state victory to show for his efforts, Bradley called for “unity” among Democrats as they prepare to do battle against the Republicans in the general election.

If only McCain had answered the partisanship of Bradley’s speech with some of his own. Curiously enough, one line of Bradley’s sounded more Republican than anything in McCain’s speech. Bradley noted that Thomas Jefferson “once divided politicians into two camps: those who secretly fear and distrust the people and think they know better, and those who consider the people the wisest guide of the public interest.” But it’s the Democrats who favor programs that reflect little trust in American citizens to govern their own lives. If Governor Bush has been clear on anything, it’s his conviction that individuals know best how to spend their own money and make their own choices about education, healthcare, and even charitable giving. They don’t need government to do these things for them.

But McCain barely mentioned his own party by name. In fact, it was Bradley the Democrat who went on to quote Lincoln, the first Republican president! Nowhere in McCain’s speech was there any mention of “the Clinton-Gore era” or Democratic policies as the main obstacle to American progress in the 21st century. A decidedly unpartisan McCain failed to back up his “best wishes” for Bush with rousing rhetoric about the need for a “Republican” White House and Congress. The once “proud conservative Republican” and “proud Reagan Republican” chose instead to hype “change in the Republican Party,” not change in the White House.

And where reform trumped Republicanism, personality prevailed over principle. For a candidate whose character drew support across party lines, it’s no surprise that McCain would mention famous Republican figures, like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, rather than famous Republican principles, like limited government, the sanctity of life, and a strong military. In short, his concession speech was all about McCain the man, and very little about his party or his hopes for a Republican victory in the fall.

With friends like these, who needs the Democratic Party?!

Lucas E. Morel is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.