The Implosion of the McCain Campaign

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John McCain’s presidential campaign is in deep trouble. On Tuesday, campaign manager Terry Nelson and chief strategist John Weaver resigned, and Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime top Senate aide, co-author of McCain’s books, and chief speechwriter, will stay on as an unpaid adviser. For informed reporting on these startling developments, check out bloggers Marc Ambinder, Chris Cillizza, Anchor Patrick Ruffini, and Ben Smith. As they point out, Weaver was McCain’s chief strategist throughout the 1999-2000 cycle and afterwards; Nelson was a highly regarded Bush-Cheney ’04 official and Salter, who writes beautifully with a perfect pitch for McCain, is close to him personally.

These changes evidently followed the disclosure that the McCain campaign raised only $11 million in the second quarter of this year and that it had only $2 million in cash as of June 30. This is taken, understandably, as evidence of poor tactical decisions: The campaign’s burn rate—the amount of money it was spending—was disastrously high as compared with its capacity to raise money. Yet at the same time Nelson, whom I don’t know, has been regarded as highly talented, and Weaver, whom I do know, is as well.

I think the failure was more strategic than tactical. The McCain campaign’s strategy was based on assumptions that proved to be unfounded. The first assumption was that McCain would benefit from the beneficent neutrality of the Bush White House. During the 2003-04 cycle Weaver and Karl Rove ended an old feud that had gone back into their days in Texas politics and had been intensified by the 2000 campaign. The Bush White House supported extending the McCain-Feingold Act to cover 527 organizations, and high-level staffers let it be known that it would be just fine with them if McCain won the nomination in 2008; McCain strongly supported Bush in the 2004 campaign and on Iraq, despite his serious reservations on the conduct of the struggle.

But beneficent neutrality turned out to be more neutral than beneficent. The Bush White House (like the Reagan White House in the 1987-88 cycle) has, so far as I can tell, stayed completely out of the campaign this year. And there’s little sign that Republican voters are looking for cues from George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or Karl Rove. Beneficent neutrality was not enough to persuade many Republican voters to overlook McCain’s passionate advocacy of campaign finance regulation, of carbon emissions reduction legislation, and of other issues that most partisan Republicans oppose.

The second assumption was that Republican primary voters would tend to support the candidate next in line—which would be McCain, because he finished second in the 2000 contest. According to this theory, widely disseminated in political commentary, Republican voters tend to respect seniority and authority, picking Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1968, President Gerald Ford in 1976, senior candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980, Vice President George Bush in 1988, and 1988 second-place finisher Bob Dole in 1996. But most political rules of thumb are based on a statistically insignificant number of cases. And some of these nominations very nearly went the other way. Ford beat Reagan in 1976 by the narrowest of margins. In 1996, if Lamar Alexander had won 8,000 more votes in New Hampshire, he rather than Dole would have finished second to Pat Buchanan there and would have probably emerged as Buchanan’s chief rival—and thus the nominee, since in a one-on-one race any respectable candidate could have beaten Buchanan.

In any case, Republicans this year aren’t following this rule. In national polls this year McCain has consistently run behind Rudy Giuliani and is now running behind Fred Thompson as well; in Iowa polls he is now running behind Mitt Romney, Thompson, and Giuliani; in New Hampshire, where he won a solid victory in 2000, he is running behind Romney and Giuliani; in South Carolina, where he suffered his decisive loss to Bush in 2000, he is running behind Giuliani and even with Thompson.

McCain, or at least Rick Davis, who managed his campaign in 2000 and is now apparently his acting campaign manager again, proclaimed that the 2008 campaign could raise $100 million to $120 million this year. This reportedly infuriated Nelson and Weaver, understandably, since McCain’s take in the first half of the year has been less than $25 million. Yet the McCain campaign built big and expensive organizations in the first caucus and primary states. Why didn’t the money come in? Because many partisan Republicans dislike McCain. Because K Street interests who might be expected to contribute to one of the highest-ranking members of the Senate Commerce Committee weren’t going to give a dime to a senator who hadn’t played ball with them (McCain was the one committee member who voted against the big Telecommunications Act of 1996). Because McCain didn’t schedule enough fundraising events in the first quarter.

Finally, the McCain campaign underestimated the vitriolic opposition among the Republican faithful to the immigration bill McCain strongly supported. On this issue McCain stood forthrightly with Bush—but against most Republican senators. A candidate’s strengths are also his weaknesses. McCain’s strength is his steadfast, sometimes stubborn, sometimes courageous, stand for his principles. That has proved to be a weakness in seeking the nomination of a party most of whose members oppose some of those principles.

Is McCain’s campaign over? Not necessarily. John Kerry shook up his campaign in 2003 and still won the Democratic nomination in 2004. Ronald Reagan fired his divisive campaign manager John Sears after winning the New Hampshire primary in 1980 and still won the Republican nomination and the general election. Still, the outlook isn’t promising. Carl Cameron of Fox News has reported that former McCain aides may join the still unofficial campaign of Fred Thompson (one of the few incumbent senators to support McCain in 2000).

My U.S. News colleague Paul Bedard reported this week that advisers (some of them presumably now ex-advisers) urged McCain to resign from the Senate to show his determination to win the presidency. This was a dreadful idea. Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano would get to name a successor, and McCain’s chances of winning the presidency seem very dim, while his zest for taking the lead on issues in the Senate seems undiminished. For evidence of that, read the speech on Iraq that McCain delivered Tuesday. You don’t have to be president to lead.