McCain, whose success in New Hampshire relied heavily on condemning Washington's "iron triangle" of lobbyists, campaign contributions and favors to the rich, became anathema to both elites: checkbook and prayer-book. His somewhat screechy counterattack--lambasting both the "big-money special interests" and the religious right--was counterproductive with party regulars. It added to the intraparty polarization: independents, ex-Perot voters, moderate Republicans for McCain; most regular Republicans and conservatives for Bush.
The results in the GOP primaries also bear some relation to those of 1964. The moderate McCain has won a majority of the Northern states that have voted so far. But Bush has won every contest in the old Confederacy and the border states. Ironically, Bush, like Goldwater in 1964, has just cinched his nomination with a victory among California Republicans.
Bush, obviously, is not Goldwater in many other ways--for better and for worse. Goldwater was an ideologue willing to flirt with extremism, preacher-style and otherwise. Bush is a soft conservative who only flirts with the Robertsons and Bob Joneses (or Willie Horton ads) when he needs them. Thirty-six years ago, Goldwater and his preachers and Texas gazillionaire allies were GOP outsiders. Today, George W., the religious-right power brokers and Texas billionaires like Sam Wyly are insiders, part of the cash-nexus Republican establishment. What used to be outside is now in.
But this establishment was weakened twice in the 1990s, by Ross Perot's ability to harness many of the dissidents who back McCain now. For Goldwater to come unglued in 1964 required dropping far below the GOP presidential showings of 1956 and 1960. This time, the GOP presidential coalition is already preshrunk. Bush will go down in November flames if he simply repeats either the disastrous 38% of his father, in 1992, or the weak 43% of Bob Dole, in 1996. Both men, Bush Senior and Dole, carried most of the South but lost most of the North.
The 2000 race could be just as tricky. Polls show that McCain would win about a quarter of the vote by running as an independent. He has said he won't, but the temptation could be great, for two reasons: first, because fighting for reform within the GOP is a waste of time; second, because if McCain could get 19%, as Perot did in 1992, he could ensure the success of major campaign reform, especially the elimination of soft-dollar contributions, just as Perot forced the Republicans and Democrats to deal with the deficit.
During the last century, reform-minded Republicans have run for president as independents three times after their faction was stiffed by party regulars: Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Robert M. La Follette in 1924 and John B. Anderson in 1980. If this is too bold for McCain, he could simply refuse to endorse Bush until the latter accepts the election-money reforms McCain has made the centerpiece of his campaign. Such action would probably help the Reform Party get 6%-12% of the November vote. True, this would help Democrat Gore to beat Bush. But a large number of pro-McCain Republicans and independents already prefer Gore to Bush, or think Gore is at least better than Bush on campaign reform.
In short, the February and early March brouhaha in the GOP presidential campaign has reopened schisms akin to those in 1992, when almost a quarter of Republicans voted for either Clinton or Perot, and in 1996, when 15%-20% did. We should remember that Perot, too, called for political reform and thumbed his nose at the religious right, which shunned him in return. McCain did not create this division, but his courage and outspokenness have made him reform's most credible current national leader.
We have reached an extraordinary fork in the U.S. political road. It is almost too much to ask of someone who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, but McCain can either roll over and support the imminent nominee of the monied interests and televangelists or he can, in one way or another, seek to pick up the banner of independent reform politics that lies at his feet.