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Why McCain Can't Win

By Bob Beckel

For Sen. John McCain this is the best of times. His Democratic opponents ravage each other across Pennsylvania in a political reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. He has taken presidential-style trips to foreign capitals and a nostalgic journey from Annapolis to Sedona. He is finally raising money. Even better, his party's base has switch from attacking him to attacking ministers, flag pins, and 60s radicals a few years short of assisted living.

Yet with all these calm political winds in his sails, John McCain will not be elected president. What lies before McCain are the gathering forces of a perfect political storm that is quietly building into a Category 5 giant. Yet his campaign advisors and the Straight Talk press corps, basking in the calm eye of this storm, seem oblivious to the intensity of the political maelstrom just over the horizon.

The collision of history, the current political climate, and the forces of the conservative right are the seeds that will lay waste to McCain's White House bid. While history and the political climate of 2008 are forces beyond McCain's power to change, the right, which is the most damaging ingredient in the storm, could have been beaten. Instead McCain has done something anathema to John McCain: He has surrendered.

To understand McCain's political dilemma begin with McCain's 42.5% RCP Average. Compare that to Obama's 45.5%, despite having endured the toughest days of his campaign to date. Those numbers alone (at least for those who understand politics) underscore the depth of John McCain's political dilemma.

Ironically, it is McCain's own errors, not Obama's skill, which will be responsible for his political obituary. From the early days of 2007 Democrats feared John McCain more then any other Republican. McCain's image as an independent politician, often at odds with his own party, and a history of seeking and often achieving bipartisan consensus in an increasingly polarized Congress, were and are attractive assets to voters in 2008.

After McCain lost the 2000, he campaigned relentlessly for the President Bush's reelection in 2004. McCain also became the most steadfast (although at times critical) supporter of the Iraq war. McCain sought rapprochement with such right wing zealots as Jerry Falwell, a man McCain once called "an agent of intolerance." Having initially opposed them, McCain embraced the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

To pacify the Republican right, McCain rejected his own bipartisan legislative efforts. He abandoned the McCain/Kennedy immigration bill that might have avoided massive GOP Hispanic defections. He turned his back on the McCain/Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act. McCain walked away from a climate change bill crafted with Republican Sen. John Warner and Democratic/Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman.

What McCain failed to realize was that the right had no intention of embracing him. He had simply spent too many years challenging their out-of-touch agenda. Without conservative support, the press assumed McCain could not win the nomination and his campaign would collapse. Which it nearly did.

By the summer of 2007 McCain was all but politically dead. But he refused to quit. He returned to New Hampshire to revive the independent, straight talking image that had attracted the state's independents and moderate Republicans in 2000. In a stunning upset, McCain won and then won again in South Carolina. And he won only with the help of independents and moderate Republicans, despite active opposition from the right.

That opposition kicked into high gear as McCain closed in on the nomination in Florida. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter, to name but a few, asked their listeners and readers to end McCain's candidacy then and there. They failed.

But for some inexplicable reason, after winning Florida and becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, McCain once again abandoned his maverick image and returned to courting the right. McCain accepted a televised interview with Sean Hannity. I talked to Hannity after the interview. He told me, correctly, that he had gotten McCain to commit to the Bush tax and economic policies; back off the McCain/Kennedy immigration solution; and to nominate conservative Supreme Court justices.

The court promise was remarkable since it was McCain's efforts in the bipartisan "Gang of 14" that had avoided an all-out war in the Senate over Bush's judicial nominees. McCain had also publicly admonished Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, for wearing "his conservative ideology on his sleeve," further inflaming the right. In a massive flip-flop McCain later spoke at the annual Washington gathering of conservatives (CPAC) promising to appoint future Supreme Court nominees in the mold of Alito.

Today, McCain still pays lip service to bipartisanship and attempts to hold on to some semblance of his maverick/independent image by campaigning in the black ghettoes of New York and the poverty-ridden Appalachians. Lacking unified Democratic opposition and fortified by an adoring press, McCain has been able to maintain this transparent shadow of his former image. That will end soon when the Democrats have a nominee who will draw attention to McCain's near total embrace of the Bush agenda.

To make matters worse, McCain's capitulation to the right has forced him to remain silent while Barack Obama has absconded with the anti-Washington, post-partisanship image. That image, once owned by John McCain, is the most powerful message among swing voters who will determine the next president.

By so doing, McCain has also abandoned the one weapon that might have overcome the historical and anti-Republican climate in 2008. It is that very McCain message which will gain Obama the Democratic nomination and likely the White House. McCain is now forced to convince the voters that another four years of Bush policies is exactly what the country needs. Democrats, prone to let victory slip away, should give thanks that the reactionaries on the right are still in charge of the Republican agenda.

Although there remains the slim possibility that Obama could lose the campaign over his relationships with his minister and a 60s radical or insensitivity to the lower middle class, it is unlikely. In a perverse way those same attacks used against Obama in the Philadelphia debate last week are giving Obama spring training and conditioning for the coming Republican offensive. Obama will be prepared for the assault, and with plenty of money to fight back.

Bob Beckel managed Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign. He is a senior political analyst for the Fox News Channel and a columnist for USA Today. Beckel is the co-author with Cal Thomas of the book "Common Ground."

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