WASHINGTON-- Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor, was talking about the legacy of his patron and friend, Bill Clinton, the other day, and said this: "I think what we'll see next time is an anti-Clinton period, an anti-packaging, anti-spin, anti-charm time -- this craving for authenticity has something to do with Bill Clinton in the White House."
I took that to be a plug for Bill Bradley, whom Reich has endorsed for president. But it seems now that, although they are in different parties, John McCain has defeated Bradley as the anti-candidate. The Republican, no anti-charmer, has otherwise prevailed this election year as what that same Clinton used to call "the agent of change."
It's an amazing development, really. Vice President Gore is a lucky man. Were it not for the rise of the Arizona hero, newspapers and talk shows would be filled with talk of Bradley as the man of change. George W. Bush is a foolish man, or a man with foolish strategists. The idea of blowing away the field at the beginning has backfired. If, for instance, Elizabeth Dole were still in the field, McCain would have to share stages and spotlights with another contender who had the ability to draw a crowd of more than six people.
Instead, McCain has a clear shot at Bush. And the governor has not yet proved that he can actually win against the charging Straight Talk Express. He could do a pop-the-balloon number before he had a chance to be gored.
There can be no doubt that voters and a lot of the press are giving McCain room. He is the tabula rasa, the vessel of hopes, who right now is all things to most all voters. Knowing not too much about him, voters look in the mirror and see their dreams. That's happened before -- at least from Dwight Eisenhower to Jesse Ventura. What is more surprising, especially in Washington, is how many people look at McCain and see their worst fears.
You can begin at the headquarters of the lucky Mr. Gore, where they are now diverting attention and resources from anti-Bradley, to say nothing of anti-Bush, to research McCain's record and life, and brainstorm how they can cut him down to size. Their internal odds are that McCain has a 50-50 chance of winning the Republican nomination.
I don't think many Republicans would give McCain that much of a chance, but still they act as if they believe he is even more dangerous than the Democrats do. The Grand Old Party has historically been more club than party; they do not like people who have not been vetted by the membership committee.
In The Washington Times, the city's small but interesting conservative newspaper, chief political correspondent Donald Lambro had this to say last Thursday: "In a series of interviews ... conservative leaders say that despite his posturing as a Reagan conservative, Mr. McCain is no conservative. ... Some see him as a Nelson Rockefeller or Nixon Republican who can swing widely in his positions -- indeed, as President Nixon did when he ushered in a wave of new spending programs and agencies and could never say no to the editorial page of The New York Times."
Well, that gives you a clue as to the age and political bias of those leaders. The Lambro commentary ran under a cartoon from The Detroit News showing McCain flying a jet fighter with only one wing -- a left wing. You're kidding! Over at Gore headquarters they're getting ready to call him Goldwater's Revenge, a candidate who was promoting massive tax cuts only last year.
But the conservative establishment types quoted, with quite different agendas of their own, seem to have concluded that McCain is actually a plot against them personally. The quotes could be summed up as "What he is, is anti-me!"
He is a "liberal-moderate" said David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, angry because McCain's ACU rating in the Senate dropped from 86 percent lifetime to 68 percent last year. Ronald Reagan's man Lyn Nofziger said McCain is not like Reagan. The libertarian CATO Institute's president, Ed Crane, said McCain is pro-government, therefore anti-CATO. Edwin Feulner, president of the "mainstream conservative" Heritage Foundation, said that what McCain is not is a "mainstream conservative." Martin Anderson, a Reagan domestic adviser, said McCain is like Reagan's old nemesis, Nelson Rockefeller.
What fun. But these Republicans of a certain establishment stripe (and stars) are true to themselves and their history. In the old days they would (and did) rather lose with Goldwater than win with Rockefeller. Many of them, or their fathers, were against Eisenhower -- and would have preferred to lose with Robert Taft or Herbert Hoover. Now, once again, they are afraid that independents, Democrats or other outsiders might muddy up the carpets in their grand old club.
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