Is McCain the New GOP Establishment Candidate?

Washington Matters

Is McCain the New GOP Establishment Candidate?

You can be forgiven for suffering a sense of deja vu: John McCain disappoints in Iowa only to ride the "Straight Talk Express" from one town meeting to another in New Hampshire to roar back against a deep-pocketed rival with a strong on-the-ground organization. But the similarities between 2000 and 2008 pretty much end there. McCain is no longer the outsider fighting the Republican Party establishment. In fact, he is poised to become the candidate of the establishment, albeit begrudgingly.

Eight years ago, McCain was a fresh face and new voice who ran as a principled conservative with a renegade streak a mile wide. He took on George W. Bush, the consensus choice of GOP poohbahs, conservative interest and cause groups and moneyed contributors, by promising to drain away the lifeblood of the political establishment at the time -- "soft money" campaign contributions. While a fiscal hawk who promised to slash government spending, he was -- and still is -- viewed as an apostate for refusing to back tax cuts as enormous as those proposed by Bush. McCain is running against the tide again, but this time the tide is not party bosses but popular public opinion.

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McCain's status as presumed front-runner crumbled over the spring and summer when independents and GOP moderates who backed him in 2000 abandoned him for supporting the surge of troops in Iraq and the party base rebelled against his stand in favor of immigration reform. But the GOP establishment couldn't to coalesce behind one candidate, as has been the case for well over 20 years, and the party's base was turned off and listless.

Enter the folksy and charming Mike Huckabee. Here was the new party rebel, an outsider who addressed not just the values of social conservatives but also addressed their fears and uncertainty. While McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson stalled, Huckabee caught fire. He won easily in Iowa and became competitive in national polls. McCain and Huckabee could well be the last men standing even before 22 states vote in February.


To prevent a two-person race by the end of the month, Romney must rally in Michigan, Giuliani in Florida or Thompson in South Carolina or elsewhere. But that seems a taller and taller order.

Many of the qualms that the tax cutters, free marketers and business community in the GOP have about McCain are rapidly being cured by Huckabee's attacks on Wall Street and class-warfare appeals to working and middle-class conservatives. So rather than see its support splintered among struggling candidates and risk a Huckabee candidacy, the party establishment is likely to cut its losses, bid adieu to  Giuliani, Romney and Thompson and start pouring money and other resources in McCain's direction--even as they hold their noses.