How McCain Lost in Pennsylvania
By Frank Rich
It's a nightmare. It's the Bataan Death March. It's mutually assured Armageddon. "Both of them are already losing the general to John McCain," declared a Newsweek columnist last month, predicting that the election "may already be over" by the time the Democrats anoint a nominee.
Not so fast. If we've learned any new rule in the 2008 campaign, it's this: Once our news culture sets a story in stone, chances are it will crumble. But first it must be recycled louder and louder 24/7, as if sheer repetition will transmute conventional wisdom into reality.
When the Pennsylvania returns rained down Tuesday night, the narrative became clear fast. The Democrats' exit polls spelled disaster: Some 25 percent of the primary voters said they would defect to Mr. McCain or not vote at all if Barack Obama were the nominee. How could the party possibly survive this bitter, perhaps race-based civil war?
But as the doomsday alarm grew shrill, few noticed that on this same day in Pennsylvania, 27 percent of Republican primary voters didn't just tell pollsters they would defect from their party's standard-bearer; they went to the polls, gas prices be damned, to vote against Mr. McCain. Though ignored by every channel I surfed, there actually was a G.O.P. primary on Tuesday, open only to registered Republicans. And while it was superfluous in determining that party's nominee, 220,000 Pennsylvania Republicans (out of their total turnout of 807,000) were moved to cast ballots for Mike Huckabee or, more numerously, Ron Paul. That's more voters than the margin (215,000) that separated Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama.
Those antiwar Paul voters are all potential defectors to the Democrats in November. Mr. Huckabee's religious conservatives, who rejected Mr. McCain throughout the primary season, might also bolt or stay home. Given that the Democratic ticket beat Bush-Cheney in Pennsylvania by 205,000 votes in 2000 and 144,000 votes in 2004, these are 220,000 voters the G.O.P. can ill-afford to lose. Especially since there are now a million more registered Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania. (These figures don't even include independents, who couldn't vote in either primary on Tuesday and have been migrating toward the Democrats since 2006.)
For such a bitterly divided party, the Democrats hardly show signs of clinical depression. The last debate, however dumb, had the most viewers of any so far. The rise in turnout and new voters is all on the Democratic side. Even before its deathbed transfusion of new donations, the Clinton campaign trounced the McCain campaign in fund-raising by 2.5 to 1. (The Obama-McCain ratio is 3 to 1.)
On Tuesday, a Democrat won the first round of a special Congressional election in Mississippi, even though the national G.O.P. outspent the Democrats by more than double and President Bush carried this previously safe Republican district by 25 percentage points in 2004. A Gallup poll last week found Mr. Bush's national disapproval rating the worst (69 percent) for any president in Gallup's entire 70-year history. For all his (and Mr. McCain's) persistent sightings of "victory" in Iraq, the percentage of Americans calling the war a mistake (63) also set a new record.
"I'm thrilled to be anywhere with high ratings," Mr. Bush joked on Monday night, when he popped up like Waldo on the NBC game show "Deal or No Deal" to root for an Army captain who was a contestant. But it turns out that not even cash giveaways to veterans can induce Americans to set eyes on this president. "Deal or No Deal" drew an audience 19 percent below its season average. The best deal for Mr. McCain would be for Mr. Bush to disappear into the witness protection program.
But surely, it could be argued, the mud in the Democratic race will be as much a drag on that party's eventual nominee as the incumbent president is on the G.O.P. ticket. The counterargument, advanced by Mrs. Clinton in justifying her "kitchen sink" attacks on Mr. Obama, is that the Democrats are better off being tested now by raising all the issues the Republicans will. It's a fair point. The Wright, Rezko, Ayers, "bittergate" and flag-pin firestorms will all be revived by the opposition come fall. Voters should indeed see how Mr. Obama deals with them, just as Democrats also need to gauge how the flash points of race and gender will play out in the crunch.
The flaw in Mrs. Clinton's refrain is her claim that she, unlike her challenger, has already been so fully vetted that her candidacy can offer no more unpleasant surprises. "I have a lot of baggage, and everybody has rummaged through it for years," she says. Perhaps the delusion that she has a get-out-of-scandal-free card comes from her unexpected endorsement from Richard Mellon Scaife, the nutty Pittsburgh newspaper publisher who once spent a fortune trying to implicate the Clintons in the "murder" of Vince Foster. Or perhaps she thinks Fox News will call off the dogs now that her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, is appearing in network promos endorsing its "fair and balanced" shtick.
But the incessant praise for Mrs. Clinton's resilience as a candidate by Karl Rove, Pat Buchanan and William Bennett reveals just how eager they are to take her on. The dealings of the Bill Clinton post-presidency, barely alluded to by Mr. Obama in his own halting bouts of negative campaigning, have simply been put on hold while the Democrats slug it out. Close observers of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post and Fox News can already read Rupert Murdoch's tea leaves, and not just those from China. "Clinton Foundation Secrets" was the title of The Journal's lead editorial on Friday profiling a rogues' gallery of shady donors.
Mrs. Clinton's supporters would argue that she's so battle-tested she could fend it all off. She's unlikely to get the chance. For all the nail-biting suspense being ginned up, the probable denouement remains unchanged. When the primary juggernaut finally ends - following picturesque day trips to Puerto Rico and Guam - the superdelegates will likely succumb to the math of Mr. Obama's virtually insurmountable pledged-delegate total.
There's also a way that two super-superdelegates, the duo on the Democrats' last winning ticket, could trigger a faster finale. Bill Clinton could do so by undermining his wife once more with another ill-timed, red-faced eruption. Al Gore could possibly do so with a well-timed endorsement before his party gets mired in yet another Florida recount.
There's only one way this can end badly, no matter how long it lasts. That would be if the loser, whoever it is, turns sore and fails to rally his or her troops around the winner. It's all about "the way the loser loses," as the Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who is neutral in the race, likes to say. While the Clintons are capable of such kamikaze narcissism, their selfish desire to preserve their own political future, if not the party's, may be a powerful check on those impulses.
On the way to the finish line, the prolonged primary race, far from destroying the Democratic candidates, may do more insidious damage to the Republican nominee, lulling his campaign into an unjustified complacency. The Democrats should "take their time - don't rush," the McCain aide Mark Salter joked last week. Yet his candidate, as the conservative blogger Ross Douthat pointed out, keeps bumping up against a 45 percent ceiling in the polls even now, when the Democrats are ostensibly in ruins.
Mr. McCain is not only burdened with the most despised president in his own 71-year lifetime, but he's getting none of the seasoning that he, no less than the Democrats, needs to compete in the fall. Age is as much an issue as race and gender in this campaign. Mr. McCain will have to prove not merely that he can keep to the physical rigors of his schedule and fend off investigations of his ties to lobbyists and developers. He also must show he can think and speak fluently about the domestic issues that are gripping the country. Picture him debating either Democrat about health care, the mortgage crisis, stagnant middle-class wages, rice rationing at Costco. It's not pretty.
Last week found Mr. McCain visiting economically stricken and "forgotten" communities (forgotten by Republicans, that is) in what his campaign bills as the "It's Time for Action Tour." It kicked off in Selma, Ala., a predominantly black town where he confirmed his maverick image by drawing an almost exclusively white audience.
The "action" the candidate outlined in the text of his speeches may strike many voters as running the gamut from inaction to inertia. Mr. McCain vowed that he would not "roll out a long list of policy initiatives." (He can't, given his long list of tax cuts.) He said he would not bring back lost jobs, lost wages or lost houses. But, as The Birmingham News reported, this stand against government bailouts for struggling Americans didn't prevent his campaign from helping itself to free labor underwritten by taxpayers: inmates from a local jail were recruited to set up tables and chairs for a private fund-raiser.
The Democrats' unending brawl may be supplying prime time with a goodly share of melodrama right now, but there will be laughter aplenty once the Republican campaign that's not ready for prime time emerges from the wings.