Primary politics

Cats will finally close on Broadway, the "real life" match made on TV’s "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" has ended in annulment and welcome fiasco, and Arizona Senator John McCain’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination is still alive. Who says there is no God?

Whatever one’s politics or party affiliation, it is hard not to be encouraged, even inspired, by Senator McCain’s victories last month in the Michigan and Arizona primaries. Only days after Texas Governor George W. Bush had rallied the Religious Right and other conservative Republicans to his cause and to victory in South Carolina, McCain triumphed in Michigan despite the strenuous efforts of the Republican party establishment to drive a stake through the heart of his "insurgency." Winning two-thirds of the votes of independents and Democrats in Michigan’s open primary, McCain once again demonstrated that he possesses the kind of crossover appeal needed to win the White House. Bush, who rushed into the arms of the Reverend Pat Robertson and other social conservatives to secure a victory in South Carolina, must now extricate himself from the divisive politics of the right wing of his party. Catholics, it appears, were particularly offended by Bush’s willingness to turn a blind eye to the anti-Catholic and racialist policies of Bob Jones University in South Carolina. It is clear that the swing voters who decide presidential elections-many of them Catholics-will reject candidates associated with the harsh rhetoric of the culture wars. Nevertheless, the Republican party’s ability to nominate someone not compromised by the ideological Right is very much an open question.

In the upcoming March 7 primaries, stretching from New York to California, victory will be determined for the most part by the votes of registered Republicans. Bush, with the overwhelming backing of Republican governors and congressmen, remains the odds-on favorite to capture the nomination. Still, McCain has not yet gotten a full hearing from Republican voters. Although his advocacy of campaign-finance reform and his preference for paying down the national debt rather than making large tax cuts flies in the face of party orthodoxy, it is hard to imagine that Bush’s attempts to paint the Arizona senator as a "liberal" or a Trojan horse for the Democrats can work in the long run. By almost any measure, McCain is ideologically very conservative. Whether it is the minimum wage, defense spending, the environment, unions, taxes, or abortion, he lines up well to the right. He was a staunch supporter, after all, of Texas Republican Phil Gramm’s presidential candidacy in 1996. If McCain can get these facts out to Republicans in the next few weeks, Bush may find himself relaxing in his beloved Texas come fall.

The vicious infighting in the Republican party is fascinating to a degree, but it should not obscure the larger significance of McCain’s candidacy. There is something undeniably fresh and even unpredictable about this self-described maverick. Furthermore, he has done something that many thought impossible: he has reinvigorated the whole political process (and in the process drained much of the interest from Bill Bradley’s challenge to Al Gore). Voters turned out in record numbers in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan. Even better, many coming out to support McCain were young or first-time voters. In an era whose culture seems to be characterized by obscene spectacles like "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?"-and where politicians are held in almost universally low esteem-this renewed interest in the politics of self-government is a hopeful sign. Yes, this is personality- (or "character-") driven politics, but McCain’s message touches on something more than Clinton-style empathy or Ross Perot’s denigration of government.

To his credit, McCain has spoken to voters’ idealism, explicitly calling for a politics that transcends self-interest, that embraces duties as much as rights. In foreign affairs, for example, he has been forthright in saying that the United States has moral obligations to act in the defense of human rights, even outside the spheres of our immediate national interest. "Although the locus of the change we are calling for is our campaign-finance system," McCain has said, "this crusade is about much more than changing how we pay for our campaigns. It’s about changing how we view our democracy."

Exactly how McCain would change our democracy as president is something voters must learn a good deal more about. Campaign-finance reform is a popular issue in the abstract, but as previous reforms have shown, it is a very complicated business fraught with unforeseen consequences. Beyond campaign reform, much of McCain’s agenda remains vague and even slapdash. But whatever Republicans or American voters at large finally decide about Senator McCain’s candidacy, he has already done a great deal to remind us of why democracy matters, and why politics is worthy of something more than our apathy or cynicism. For that, even George W. Bush, Al Gore, and Bill Bradley ought to be grateful.

Published in the 2000-03-10 issue: 
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