Poor John McCain. In this world of razor thin margins and polarizing politics, how can he maintain his maverick status, which endears him to independents and conservative Democrats alike, while playing to the lunatic fringe who make or break a primary campaign?
He's giving it a shot down in Iowa right now. After a wink-wink appearance on the Daily Show where he basically implied to John Stewart that he was just playing nice with religious conservatives, he's in Corn Town chumming up to those nutters in an attempt to convince them that they can be friends. But that's a tough rope to walk and there's no net in national politics.
There's no question that the religious right is a formidable political force. Much more so than I thought going into the 2004 presidential election, I can tell you that. But playing to that margin can easily alienate the rest of the voting public. Even with some 40% of Americans claiming to be Born Again, even the largest and most influential evangelical lobbying group, the Christian Coalition, only boasts 2 million members. So, do you risk freaking out tens of millions of middle of the road voters to appeal to so relatively few? Maybe. The religious right also votes in bulk. Secure one and you secure them all, which can be crucial given the margins the last two presidential elections saw.
But as disciplined as this voting bloc is they're equally savvy. Their leaders KNOW the system and how to work it. They know who their friends are—and even better, who they aren't. They've been duped time and again with promises to abolish abortion and protect prayer in schools only to be let down by Supreme Court Justices who uphold established case law again and again. There's evidence they're growing impatient with Bush, you can bet they won't run out to support another GOP candidate who's less than enthusiastically in their corner. And yet, they hold the keys to the nomination.
In a recent MSNBC article, Steve Scheffler, who heads the Iowa Christian Alliance, formerly the Christian Coalition, said, "There's no support for McCain in this constituency, and I don't see how you can make a scenario where you can bypass us." Exactly.
Among the people McCain called "agents of intolerance" in his 2000 presidential bid was Jerry Falwell. That kind of blunt, tough talk is what made independents stand up and take notice. And he was right. But McCain got creamed in the primaries thanks in large part to the rallying of Christian Conservatives who saw one of their own in George W. Bush, so now he's speaking at Falwell's Liberty University in May.
But it's been six years with Bush and his political capitol is spent. His strength has always been his perceived character and that is fast fading with each new revelation into the pre-war build-up and his cut-throat politics of personal destruction by way of Karl Rove. Many Americans may want someone who can be tough on terrorism and talk a good game when it comes to taxes, but they are also utterly freaked out by the religious grandstanding and faith-based maneuvering of the last six years. Sure, you can have your faith but please, don't use it as a political wedge. It's unseemly.
McCain's appearance on Meet the Press a couple weeks ago illustrates how hard this balancing act can get. When pressed whether he still thought Jerry Falwell was an agent of intolerance, McCain demurred and whimpered "no." It wasn't convincing and that's the problem. McCain's strength is in his candor and ability to seemingly cut through the political bullshit. A half-assed, insincere recanting of one of his most powerful campaign statements does nothing to win over the faithful and completely undermines his reputation among Independents who found that kind of rhetoric refreshing. Now, it's more of the same, and I think we've all had enough.