As a rallying cry. "Common sense conservatism" doesn't have quite the ring of "Straight Talk Express." But the new slogan on the website of John McCain's presidential exploratory committee--a slogan he manages to repeat at least three times in every speech he gives these days--tells you all you need to know about how different this presidential campaign will be from his last one. McCain '08 will be a bigger, more conventional operation--a tank, not a slingshot. The prevailing wisdom about McCain used to be that his bipartisan appeal would make him a sure bet in a presidential race--if only he could get past the Republican primary. But as more and more of the party establishment climb aboard a campaign that McCain has not yet even formally launched, it's starting to look as if the opposite may be true. By trying to become the perfect candidate for the primaries, McCain could be creating difficulties for himself in a general election.
His hard-line position on Iraq is a perfect case in point. McCain has continued to press for more troops there, and spent last week dismissing the Iraq Study Group recommendation to bring them home as nothing short of a recipe for defeat. That's the kind of strong, consistent hawkishness that G.O.P. primary voters look for. "Besides," says McCain strategist Mark Salter, "it's what he believes." The problem is that exit polls in last month's election said only 17% of voters overall share that view, which could leave the other 83% wondering whether McCain's famous independent streak, so appealing on most issues, would be such a good thing to have in a Commander in Chief who has the power to take the country to war. Already there are signs that his image is taking a hit. In the CBS/New York Times poll, McCain's favorability rating slid 6 points, to 28%, between January and September.
McCain insists that he has always been more conservative than many of his fans believe him to be. But the most important perception people have about McCain is not about ideology; it's about integrity. After staking his reputation on the moral high ground by speaking truth to power on issues ranging from deficits to torture, McCain is uniquely vulnerable to anything that hints of hypocrisy--even on questions that ordinary politicians would get a pass on. To have a shot at winning a presidential election these days, for instance, it is nearly a requirement that candidates opt out of the federal finance system, forgoing its matching funds because it's too difficult to mount a credible campaign within the law's spending caps. But that move, however pragmatic, would look bad coming from an author of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law.
Also, it's harder for McCain than most to explain away inconsistencies. How, for example, could a deficit hawk vote to make President Bush's tax credits permanent after opposing their passage in the first place as fiscally irresponsible? Or why, after declaring Jerry Falwell to be an agent of intolerance during the brutal 2000 primary campaign, did McCain deliver the commencement speech last May at Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia?