Alexander's Column

Road bumps ahead?

Mark Alexander · Feb. 4, 2000

“New Hampshire is a bump in the road for front runners and this year is no exception.” –George W. Bush

Last Tuesday, the “bump” was a fleet of Straight Talk Express buses running over something in the middle of the road. And John McCain’s 18% margin of victory, deep and broad though littered with independents, was something more than a protuberance on Mr. Bush’s road to the White House.

By Wednesday morning, even the Mars Polar Lander had gotten an earful of punditry about why Mr. Bush fared so poorly – to the surprise of every media talkinghead. But now that the confetti has settled and the din of competing spin is subsiding, unfettered reasoning and analysis can emerge.

The Federalist noted last week: “The most compelling analysis of the Iowa vote is that the candidates to the right of Mr. Bush, who has positioned himself as an establishment centrist, collected 54% of the votes cast.” That constituted a rejection of the “establishment” candidate, setting the stage for further rejection in New Hampshire. Indeed, the net result was that Bush’s 41% showing in Iowa dropped to 31% in New Hampshire, where McCain had placed all his bets.

To hear McCain tell it, his victory was all about his Johnny-one-note message – campaign finance reform. He told his supporters Tuesday night, “The Washington triangle of big money, lobbyists and legislation…for too long has placed special interests above the national interests…. Thanks to you, we’ve sent a powerful message to Washington that change is coming…it’s the beginning of the end of the truth-busting politics of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.”

While a plurality of Americans are ready to dispense with the Clinton/Gore regime permanently, perhaps viewing McCain as the “anti-Clinton,” fewer than 1% of Americans list campaign finance reform as a major concern. So if it was not McCain’s message, what was it?

Let’s examine two points of conventional wisdom about McCain and the liberal media who have, arguably, given him much more favorable coverage than Mr. Bush.

  1. “McCain is the darling of liberal media because he is an easier target for Gore than Bush.” Perhaps some liberal pundits view him as an easier opponent, but most know that if you put straight-talkin’ McCain mano a mano with Clinton’s enabler, Gore will look like a convict at a parole board hearing. McCain is no pushover.

  2. “McCain is the darling of liberal media because his ‘campaign finance reform’ proposals will effectively protect the media’s ‘Fourth Estate’ from the Constitution’s First Amendment.” Make no mistake about it. The only obstacle to a virtual liberal monopoly on public opinion, and thus public office, is the ability of “special interests” – conservative special interests – to purchase marketing for their message. The liberal message is distributed free-of-charge via the Brokaw/Rather/Jennings cartel, in cooperation with King, O’ Donnell, Rivera et al. (The Sociocrats do, of course, occasionally purchase airtime with “contributions” from unions, Buddhist nuns, and the Peoples’ Liberation Army.) McCain’s reform prop gets plenty of coverage by an admiring media.

So the media likes McCain more than Mr. Bush. Are we suggesting that accounts for his outstanding performance in New Hampshire? It certainly counts for something, but McCain’s real appeal is not driven by his message or friendly media. It is something much deeper in the conscience of conservative voters.

McCain’s victory was a rejection of the status quo. Though George Bush and Al Gore are differentiated ideologically, they both look like two sides of the same coin – silver spoon boarding school boys, Yale and Harvard men, inheritance beneficiaries of political dynasties, establishment candidates tapped by the elites of their respective parties, with all the cash, accoutrements and political spinners to prove it.

In short, they look like Republicrats, a hybrid breed of establishment Republicans and Democrats no longer distinguished by principled character. Thus, “establishment politics” and “principled character” are seen as antithetical. Therein lies the McCain appeal. He is viewed as the anti-establishment pro-character candidate, a warrior who can stand up to Clinton and his protégé.

This is not to suggest Bush and Gore are, by any means, moral equivalents. Mr. Bush’s integrity handily eclipses that of Mr. Gore. It is simply to say that conservative voters are capable of rejecting the status quo because of their disdain for the current GOP establishment. After all, Mr. McCain’s message is just that: Reject “the Washington triangle of big money, lobbyists and legislation….”

Republicans in New Hampshire gave McCain a nod the way they did Pat Buchanan in 1996 – who tanked shortly thereafter. They again rejected the anointed establishment guy – and who could blame them after hearing the abysmal response to Mr. Clinton’s diatribe last week by Bill Frist and Susan Collins? But – we cannot overemphasize this point – McCain is no conservative maverick like Buchanan, which is to say, conservative voters are so dissatisfied with establishment Republicans that some number of them will even vote for a candidate like McCain with a very dubious ideological pedigree but perceived to be long on character.

McCain got the message in New Hampshire. To wit, his new mantra: “All of the establishment is against me and I’m proud of it. If you want business as usual, you don’t want me as president.” As for his prospects in South Carolina, a state with a strong military heritage, he can stay afloat there. If he expands his “reform” message to include, say, scrapping the tax code – a far more insidious mechanism of liberal special interests than campaign contributions – and replacing it with a flat or national sales tax, all bets are off.

Alternately, though Mr. Bush is a formidable opponent with coffers full and a well-oiled machine, if he continues to straddle the line in the middle of the road, continues to be perceived as a “kinder, gentler, compassionate conservative” of the “establishment roll-over ” variety, he may again find himself of the “establishment run-over” variety.