Richard Reeves

McCain: The Last Man Standing

BERLIN -- It was a distinct pleasure to be back in Berlin on the night Sen. John McCain won the New Hampshire Republican primary and was being hailed coast-to-coast as his party's front-runner. That may be a dubious distinction, but for me it seemed vindication for a prediction I had made right here early last September.

When I said then that I thought McCain would be the last man standing in a stumpy field, many in the audience at the American Academy in Berlin laughed out loud. Why not? The 71-year-old senator, looking every year his age, was out of money, out of issues and out of staff, most of them having quit because the man has a Vesuvian temper and refused to listen to his oldest friends telling him he was a near-terminal case.

McCain was running in the low single digits in national polls against the flashing Rudy Giuliani, the jut-jawed Mitt Romney, whose face had never been rearranged by North Vietnamese torturers, and the still-unannounced Fred Thompson. That was then and now is now, as Hillary Clinton might say with a bit of tear in her eye. One of the most attractive things about McCain, not my favorite guy, is that he has lived a far tougher life than the rest of us, but he doesn't expect us to feel sorry for him.

Why did McCain survive? Leaving aside the personal failings of Giuliani and the fancy fictions of Romney, McCain is prevailing because he is the perfect candidate for a dying party. He's probably a November loser, but even if he somehow manages to hold the clock back against the surging Democrats, among whom Clinton may be too old at 60, he certainly would not be a likely candidate to run for re-election or to renew his party, the Republicans, which is a real party of ideas.

In other words, old John McCain, with more past than future, is the perfect transitional standard for the Republicans as they rebuild and reinvent themselves after November of 2008. He will be as respected as he will be ignored. That's not so bad, considering that most party members don't much like him anyway. He's always been too wild and crazy for the Grand Old Party, too unpredictable, too open. He talks too much.

The Republicans, history knows, have been the party of many of America's greatest voices -- Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan. But somehow their cold, cold hearts have always been suspicious of real passion, and they have turned more comfortably back to the quieter men among them, silent Cal Coolidge, William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower. Even George W. Bush talks more (or thinks less) than many conservative loyalists think is good for cause and country.

The link between conservatism and Republicanism is laid out in a smart new book titled "Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism," by Alfred S. Regnery, the publisher of a journal of the right, The American Spectator. (I'm using the words "conservatism" and "Republicanism" interchangeably here not because they are the same thing, but because under our election laws, ideologies have to present themselves through parties, and the Republican Party is the conservatives' vehicle.)

Regnery's book, a lively read, is essentially a telling of the recovery of conservatism from the devastating defeat of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater (38 percent of the vote) by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The first hundred pages (of 365) essentially tell the story of the rise of a new post-World War II conservatism fueled by the free-market capitalist ideas of two brilliant Austrian emigres -- Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises -- and the yeoman evangelism of talented young Americans, most particularly William F. Buckley.

But by 1964, American conservatives had been declared well and truly dead. Regnery writes: "Yet as we look back 40 years later ... (the landslide) was the single most energizing event that the conservative movement experienced from 1945 to the present and started liberalism's slide into irrelevancy."

Ah, hubris! Ah, the power that corrupted American conservatism after its great triumphs in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as president and then in 1994 with the Republican takeover of Congress.

Liberals have fought their way back with their own ideas. The Republicans can offer no Barack Obamas or Bill Richardsons this year. They have to stand with another old Arizona senator until they can again build fortresses of ideas to replace the citadels that have crumbled in the years after they won power.

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