Back in 2000, Sen. John McCain had the audacity to launch a bid for the Republican nomination against George W. Bush. Back then, we didn’t know much about Bush. He was little more than the evangelical son of a former president, a popular governor and a charismatic candidate. And we knew that he was the favorite scion of the regimented national Republican machine.
During the 1990s, various conservative causes with plenty of money, control of media outlets and intellectual clout rallied around their collective hatred of Bill Clinton. They kept him on his toes with investigations into everything from Whitewater to Monica. They helped bring Newt Gingrich and a few dozen other Republicans into Congress in 1994 with an electorally successful national platform, the Contract With America. They so infuriated Hillary Clinton that she went on national TV to complain about a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” And they put in the money and the energy to ensure a Republican takeover of the White House in 2000. George W. Bush was their candidate.
In 2000, McCain was a charming western Republican with a reputation for independence and for voting his conscience. Then he won New Hampshire and he became a threat. A threat to eight years of planning, millions of dollars and the collective will of some very powerful Republicans. Rattled by John McCain’s primary victory, the Republican machine kicked back. Hard.
Days before the 2000 South Carolina primary, likely voters began receiving calls insinuating that John McCain had an illegitimate mixed-race child out of wedlock. A Bob Jones University professor unaffiliated with the Bush campaign circulated an e-mail suggesting the same thing. John McCain lost the South Carolina primary. Soon thereafter, he dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination.
Eight years ago, Republican Party insiders presented a rich, unified front that would do anything to get their guy elected. They assembled an unlikely coalition of evangelicals, business conservatives and neoconservatives behind a candidate with no national political experience and won. And now? Only eight years later, the coalition seems to have crumbled. The unified front is gone. A little more than a year before the general election, the Republican Party looks like the Democrats used to around this time: disorganized, petty, immature, unprepared. And the Democratic establishment, so fractured in 1992 and 2004 (the last two times Democrats faced a Republican incumbent), has rallied around a relative of another former president and carried Hillary Clinton to a 21-point lead over Barack Obama in the latest Gallup poll.
When did the Republican machine start to crumble?
Start with the resignation of Karl Rove. For years he maintained a coalition that combined tax-hating old-school conservatives, neoconservatives bent on toppling Saddam Hussein at any price, evangelicals obsessed with social issues and libertarians determined to keep the government away from the same social issues. For almost a decade, Rove’s wobbly, misshapen big tent raised unbelievable sums of money and kept Democrats scared and consistently defeated nationally and locally.
Now that Rove is spending more time with his family, the Republican primary frontrunners include 2000 smear victim McCain, New England Mormon Mitt Romney, New York social liberal Rudy Giuliani and wooden former actor Fred Thompson.
Giuliani is scrambling to conceal his lack of foreign-policy credentials by surrounding himself with neocons who want to invade Iran. Romney is backpedaling from his liberal social record as fast as possible. And McCain is cozying up to the evangelicals in every way he can imagine. But without the financial and ideological regimentation provided by the old machine, the candidates have been reduced to engaging in what long-shot candidate Mike Huckabee called a “demolition derby.”
In the last week, McCain has attacked Romney for his flip-flopping. Giuliani insinuated that because Thompson is a lawyer he is undeserving of the nomination. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has actually challenged the conservative credentials of his opponents. Didn’t the Republicans once save this kind of ammunition for the general election?
Not anymore. This year, the lockstep unity is gone. This year, the Republicans can’t muster an effective attack on Hillary Clinton because they’re too busy fighting themselves. This year, a group of influential evangelicals is threatening to support a third candidate if Giuliani grabs the Republican nomination — threatening to effectively hand the presidency to the Democrats because New York’s former mayor won’t vow to end abortion once and for all.
The line that drew the most applause at the latest Republican debate (according to The New York Times) shows just how far the Republican machine has fallen. John McCain, the victim of a vicious and untrue assault on his character in 2000, managed to remind the crowd that he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam while Hillary Clinton was busy being a hippie back in Woodstock, N.Y. In 2000, that joke wouldn’t have registered as an attack. In 2008, it seems that’s the best the Republicans can do.
Xan White is a junior in Pierson College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.