April 22, 2008


Is John McCain Bob Dole?: Or is he Dwight Eisenhower? (Actually, that may depend on whether Barack Obama is Mike Dukakis or John Kennedy.) A handicapping. (John Heilemann, Apr 13, 2008, New York)

So if McCain is no longer the bracing iconoclast he was in 2000, who the hell is he?

“I’ll tell you,” this person says. “He’s morphed into Bob Dole.”

This was not my first encounter with the McCain-is-Dole meme. I had first run across it back in January, on the night of the final Republican debate, in Simi Valley, California, when McCain’s crabbiness and sarcasm onstage had prompted a former GOP player now tilling the corporate field to make the comparison over dinner. As it turned out, the idea was also being promulgated sub rosa by a number of Mitt Romney’s senior strategists. A few days later, on the morning of Super Duper Tuesday, it popped out of Mitt’s own mouth. “There are a lot of folks that tend to think maybe John McCain’s race is a bit like Bob Dole’s race,” Romney snarked on Fox News. “That it’s the guy who’s the next in line; he’s the inevitable choice and we’ll give it to him, and then it won’t work.”

Not surprisingly, McCain’s people push back hard on the suggestion that their guy might be Dole Redux. “I think that in many ways he’s very un-Dole-like,” retorts McKinnon. “He actually has really good strategic sense. He’s a very disciplined candidate in terms of delivering a message. And Dole restrained those things that people liked best about him. There’s a great side of Dole that we never saw. We’ll always see that with McCain.”

Certainly it’s true that Dole kept his sense of humor—dark, ironic, acutely subversive—largely under wraps when he was the Republican nominee in 1996. It’s also true that McCain makes no effort to suppress his comic sensibilities, which are not only similar to Dole’s but also to those of David Letterman, with whom he shares an affinity. Like Letterman and Dole, McCain is constantly offering a running sidelong commentary about himself and what he is doing, in the process winking, letting everyone know that, deep down, he considers it a bit of a sham. In New Hampshire, McCain routinely ended appearances on the stump by invoking Richard Daley’s timeless dictum “Vote early and vote often.” What other presidential candidate in history has ever left his audiences not with an applause line or a rousing crescendo but a cynical joke about politics?

As Neal Gabler argued recently in the Times, this is no small part of why McCain is popular with the press: He is the meta-candidate—and journalists have never met a meta they didn’t like. The question, however, is whether it’s the ideal approach to claiming the hearts of voters. Though Letterman is popular, Leno always thumps him in the ratings, after all. On the other hand, McCain’s propensities in this regard may be the best counterweight against his increasingly geriatric bearing. “It’s one of the few future-oriented things about him,” says Alex Castellanos. “He’s got that postmodern detachment and intolerance of bullshit that will keep you young forever.”

But few of the other likenesses between McCain and Dole can be spun so benignly. There’s the septuagenarian-ness (McCain is 71; Dole was 72 when he ran). There’s the physical frailty, courageously earned in war, that nevertheless serves as a constant reminder of his advanced years. There’s the legendary shortness of his fuse. (McCain has yet to have a full-on “Stop lying about my record” moment on the trail, but his testiness was on display the other day in a widely YouTubed confrontation on his campaign jet with the Times’s Elisabeth Bumiller.) There’s the firm conviction, as Time journalist Mark Halperin has noted, that “being on Meet the Press is more important than going to church—actually, that being on Meet the Press is going to church.”

These are all superficial things, you might say, and you’d be correct. But Republicans cite deeper, more worrying commonalities between McCain and Dole. “You’d fly around with Dole in 1996 and try to talk message, and all he wanted to know was who was going to be up onstage with him at the next event,” recalls an operative who worked for Dole in his pre-Viagra days. “Same deal now with McCain. He has no message outside of Iraq. What’s John McCain’s health plan? What’s his tax plan? What’s his high-tech plan? No one in a million years can tell you.”

Scott Reed, Dole’s campaign manager, doesn’t disagree with many of these parallels. “Can’t lift their arms above their heads, can’t comb their own hair—yeah,” he says. “Teleprompter-challenged—right.” But Reed points out a salient difference between 1996 and today. “What happened with Dole was that the Democrats were able to aim both bazookas at us,” he explains. “They took all their primary money and used it to create the Dole-Gingrich two-headed monster, and we were never able to get up off the mat. But the Democrats aren’t able to do that now. They may never be able to do it.”

Reed is right. For all the wailing and gnashing of molars among Democrats about the damage being done to Obama and Clinton by their prolonged primary tussle, the greater cost to the party may be the missed opportunity to unload on McCain this spring. To no small extent, presidential campaigns are battles that boil down to a pair of competing efforts to define the opposition. Were BHO and HRC not still endeavoring to hack each other to pieces with metaphorical meat cleavers, Democrats could be using their huge financial advantage to cast McCain in whatever mold they consider most damaging: Dubya II, Dole II, Attila the Hun II, whatever. But instead it’s the GOP that’s getting a head start in the definition derby—especially concerning Obama.

Bob Dole was just unfortunate with regard to when it was his turn--he'd have beaten Carter in '76 or '80, Mondale in '84, Dukakis in '88, and Clinton in '92. But no one was likely to beat a Bill Clinton who was reaping Ronald Reagan's Peace Dividend in '96, though had Ross Perot followed through on his idea of bowing out and endsoring the Senator he might just have pulled off the upset.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 22, 2008 2:24 PM
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