THE MCCAIN STRATEGY

A couple weeks ago, the Hotline started trumpeting polling showing that 5% more Americans support a surge in Iraq when it’s described as the “McCain strategy” than as the “Bush strategy.” Like most political polls, it shows that people think differently than they think that they think – that is, few people like to think that they would come down differently on otherwise identically described plans based on who they were named after. But as a demonstration of the power of the McCain brand, I’d have to say it’s underwhelming.

John McCain, bearer of the faith of our fathers, guide to a braver life, darling of ostensibly liberal journalists and avowedly partisan Democrats, can only lift the surge from 32% to 37%? Five percent? And that’s only three percent over the support it garners with nobody’s name stamped on it.

Clearly McCain’s plan to defend his hawkish stance on the grounds that Bush failed by being insufficiently hawkish is taking a beating as Bush takes a page from his book. Now McCain is left hoping that voters give him points for the courage of his convictions, that they believe that McCain would have done the surge way better than Bush, or that the surge will have Iraqis belatedly throwing rose petals at the feet of American soldiers. Of those possibilities, none is super promising. The first is maybe the most interesting, because it provides an interesting test case on the question of how voters weigh what your issue positions say about you versus how much they agree with yours.

Paul Waldman makes a strong case that McCain’s advocacy of campaign finance reform shows that, in Mark Schmitt’s words, “It’s not what you say about the issues – it’s what the issues say about you” – that is, that McCain’s advocacy of reform is a winner not because people care about the issue one way or the other but because it casts him as a man of integrity. It’s an important point that many Democrats with a congenital need to split the difference on issues of the day would do well to remember. On the other hand, the difference between campaign finance reform and escalation in Iraq is that most Americans aren’t hell-bent against campaign finance reform – that just don’t care that much about it.

As for what this means about John McCain’s general election chances, I still think he’s a formidable opponent, certainly more so than Mitt Romney or Sam Brownback. But as a raft of polls the past few days have confirmed, he can be beaten. Which is all the more reason for progressives to seek out a candidate who would do a great job governing the country.

SAM BROWNBACK, CALL YOUR PUBLICIST

I’m not much one for “Great Man” theories of our political history – that is, I think most of the writing on twists and turns in American political history overstates the importance of the sensibilities and psychology of individual politicians and understates social movements, cultural trends, demographic shifts, and so forth – but I’ll readily acknowledge that when it comes to, say, the Republican presidential primary for 2008, there are only so many apparent contenders. And an act of hubris or poor strategery that pulls one out of contention can seriously shift the playing field for everybody else.

That’s why Democrats may come to reconsider their glee over George Allen’s “macaca” muck-up of two months ago if it turns out to have indeed taken Allen out of serious contention for the GOP presidential nomination. Because not long ago, George Allen was well-placed to bear the mantle of “Un-McCain,” a charismatic candidate with the right combination of sterling conservative credentials and cultural compatability (however affected) to excite folks from the GOP base, particularly Christian conservatives, either nonplussed or turned off by a McCain candidacy. The evidence of racial animus on his part could have been just enough to let him take the primary but not the general election.

Now, not so much.

And just as Hillary Clinton’s best chance of taking her party’s nomination is the scenario in which a single charismatic, consenus “Un-Hillary” never quite materializes, for the GOP nod to go to McCain, whose otherwise right-wing record is marred by opposition to global warming, hard money, and torture, and by some carefully chosen symbolic snubs to the base, is the absence of a single viable “Un-McCain.”

Maybe what’s most striking in all this is the lack of a strong McCain alternative to gather in all the GOP activists under one placard. First it was supposed to be Bill Frist. Then he got outplayed by the “Gang of 14” over judicial nominations. And his impressive conversion on the road to Iowa into a religious right zealot was undercut by his betrayal on stem cells.

Rick Santorum, one of the most telegenic elected Republicans out there, from one of the states the party is trying hardest to bring back into its column, is now on track to get kicked out of office by Keystone State voters.

Mike Huckabee has so far failed to make a name for himself for more than losing weight – except with the Club for Growth and the economic right-wingers in its orbit, who hate his guts more than most non-McCain GOPers’.

Mitt Romney, though he pulled off an impressive ground game in the SRLC straw poll six months ago, is still going to have a hard time as the Mormon Governor of Massachusetts exciting the base enough to avert a marriage of convenience to McCain.

Newt Gingrich, like Gary Hart in the lead-up to ’04, seems to have underestimated the staying power of his scandals and overestimated the yearning of the American people for a wonk.

Rudy Giuliani believes in the right to choose.

So it’s not clear who is left to stop the steady flow of strategists, fund-raisers, and activists to John McCain, who is by far the most popular advocate of right-wing politics in the United States. After Macacagate, McCain has at least a passable shot at benefiting from the kind of dynamic that played a key role in elevating Bill Clinton in ’92: the absence of a primary candidate beloved by the party’s base.

And while McCain is beatable, he has the benefit of years of praise not only from starstruck journalists but from short-sighted Democrats who’ve boosted his claims to speak for the center of America.

Meanwhile, you’ve gotta wonder what’s going through the head of Sam Brownback, as staunch a social conservative as you’ll find in the Senate, with no bruising re-election fight in sight, no awkward position in the Republican leadership, and no scandal-ridden press clippings to buck.

SEPARATED AT BIRTH, REUNITED AT THE FIRST DEBATE?

My hard-core jealousy of the people of Wisconsin for having the representation of Russ Feingold (D-WI) is no secret here. Neither is my (significantly diminished for ’08 in light of his recent divorce news, but still springing eternal) hope to see him run for President. If somehow he did seize that nomination, there’s a decent chance he’d be squaring off against another Senator, Sam Brownback (R-KS), who in the wake of Bill Frist’s filibuster semi-implosion and Rick Santorum’s likely ’06 defeat has an excellent claim to the loyalties of religious conservatives. A Feingold-Brownback face-off would be a delight to watch, not only because we would win, but because it would provide a real clash of alternative visions and ideologies which, if you haven’t noticed, is not the main thing for which US Presidential elections are famous. But it would also be memorable (remember, you heard it hear first) for another striking but as-yet un-remarked upon (until now) reason.

Russ Feingold and Sam Brownback look like the same person.

That’s right. What they lack in ideological similarity, they make up in similar appearance. Sam Brownback looks like a slightly more awkward, slightly less attractive Russ Feingold.

Don’t believe me? Decide for yourself:

Feingold and Brownback: You can tell their abortion stances apart – unlike their har-cuts. Just remember: You saw it here first.

FLIP-FLOP IN A PHRASE

Appearing on Hardball, What’s the Matter With Kansas star Sam Bronwback (R-Kansas) just told us that Americans are angry at the courts because they keep “inserting themselves” in issues where we don’t believe they belong, like Roe, and “changing our understanding” of issues like property in cases like Kelo. What he avoided saying, lest he stray off the message discipline reservation, is that the decision in Kelo he decries as a change was a decision not to overturn the law. Senator Brownback’s problem with the court’s economic jurisprudence, in other words, is that it’s not activist enough.

The conservative establishment vision for the court is not that it leave controversial decisions to be settled directly by the people, but rather that it step back when majorities choose to legislate against civil liberties (especially those of others) , and then aggressively intercede to overturn even those economic regulations which are overwhelmingly popular. Conservatives like Sam Brownback are outraged when the court stops a heterosexual majority from writing homosexuals out of the city’s non-discrimination laws in Romer, but elated when it turns back Congress’ attempt to keep firearms out of our schools. Whereas my reactions, unsurprisingly, are the opposite. A couple days ago I set forth a couple of the reasons I think the Court is justified in blocking the imposition of majoritarian sexual morality in Griswold and unjustified in blocking the majority’s attempt to set common labor standards in Lochner (if you want to have sex without condoms and make at least $5 an hour at work – not at the same time that is – my using condoms doesn’t make a difference to you but my working for $1 does). And Brownback has his reasons for his position as well. But unlike, say, Nathan Newman, he can’t hope to credibly claim that he’s an opponent of “judicial activism” across the board (and unlike – maybe – Finnegan, he can’t claim to be a consistent fan of judicial intervention to limit government either).

As a couple Yalies just showed in a Times piece identifying Clarence Thomas to be the Court’s Activist-in-Chief, the question for most of us is when and to what extent such activism is just and appropriate, and the country would would be better served by a national debate on that question (personally, if the question were all the activism or none of it – which I’m glad it isn’t – I’d go with none so that the left would at least have recourse to the legislature, and a spur to organize).

Watching the Gonzales Confirmation Hearing:

11:30: So far, the GOP Talking Points on the challenge to the vote count and the Gonzales nomination, respectively, seem to be “Don’t listen to them because they’re whining and you’ll just become confused,” and “He was just a lowly bureaucrat up against a Big Bad Justice Department.”

11:40 Gonzales: The abuses which we all object to, no one supports.

11:45 Gonzales: The Geneva Convention only works as a universal human rights standard if it only applies to some people.

11:54 Gonzales: At least we don’t cut people’s heads off. (Talk about defining deviancy down)

12:02 Gonzales: It’s not that I don’t offer my own opinions, it’s just that the Department of Justice is very persuasive.

12:07 Gonzales: If I didn’t mention in my memo to Bush on whether to execute this guy that his lawyer slept through the trial, it must be that we’d realized it was frivolous.

12:12: Senator Cornyn (R-TX): If people disagree with you on torture, it’s because they don’t want to win the war on terror as much as you.

12:13 Cornyn: They say you haven’t given you the documents you want, but they have given us these two file folders which seem to have lots of pages in them.

12:17 Gonzales: If there was a possibility of you all reading my candid advice, I might give different candid advice.

12:18 Senator Schumer (D-NY): Of course we need a little less liberty these days. Only, maybe not this much less. And could you at least talk to us about it?

12:27 Gonzales: The Executive Branch has no opinion on whether the Legislative Branch should be able to filibuster its nominees.

12:31 Senator Brownback (R-KS): We need to do more to lower recidivism rates by helping prisoners to function in society…with Jesus.

12:34 Brownback: Sure there’s a first amendment, but porn is really unpleasant. I’d like to recruit your wife to look into it.

12:37 Gonzales: I wasn’t calling my colleagues judicial activists for wanting to force minors to get parental permission for abortion, I was just saying their conclusions were judicial activism.

12:42 Gonzales: What do you mean did my redefinition of torture encourage abuse? The majority of prisoners have not been tortured.

12:44 Gonzales: I don’t think we’re ever allowed to commit war crimes, but I’ll keep you posted.

12:45 Gonzales: The President hasn’t used his authority to disobey the law, but he has it.