John McCain's presidential candidacy has now collapsed so completely that, in a recent poll back home in Arizona, he is trailing for re-election to his own Senate seat in 2010 to popular, term-limited Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano. Another poll, this one from Strategic Vision, shows 51% of likely Republican -- Republican -- caucus goers support withdrawal from Iraq in the next six months.
Much of McCain's collapse is due to his repositioning, from the straight talk maverick of 2000 to the insider's choice of 2006. This may have seemed like a smart move early in the campaign because of the Republican tradition of nominating the person whose turn it is next.
Several months ago, I argued that "the principle of the Turn" made McCain a lock for the Republican nomination, because the Republican Party had not rejected the anointed successor since the 1940's. With only one interregnum, the line is unbroken, with no Jimmy Carter type outsider. Dewey to Ike to Nixon to Ford to Reagan to Bush 41 to Dole to Bush 43. The sole exception is the Goldwater forfeit in 1964. Goldwater himself said LBJ could not be beaten less than a year after JFK's assassination, and the establishment decided to let the right wing take over and lose.
I'm not serving myself a big plate of crow, because the collapse of McCain's candidacy doesn't discredit the Turn theory. Rather, it shows the exceptional weakness and disarray of the Republican Party during the extended death-rattle of the Bush administration.
The increasingly isolated president has virtually no influence over the nomination. Despite the veto pen and the finger-on-the-button power still at his command, Bush's only political usefulness to his party is raising money from the 25% or so that still blindly back him. Closed door, no media, protesters at a Secret Service enforced distance, $1000 a plate, Air Force One back to the ranch.
No other Republican candidate is stepping forward to claim the mantle of heir that cursed McCain, because no one wants to be associated with Bush. Not that they're rejecting the policies. Not in the context of a GOP nomination contest dominated by the few and the faithful, the 25%, many of whom back the war because they have family members fighting and they can't bear the cognitive dissonance that their loved ones are at risk for a failed policy.
But the contenders are keeping an eye on the general election, and avoiding praise of Bush that could sound-bite them in the butt next October. Bush's name is rarely invoked in Republican debates or on the stump -- unless it's negatively by Ron Paul. Otherwise, it's all the troops, the troops, the troops, with nary a mention of the Commander in Chief.
It's hard to overstate just how big a deal this repudiation is. Even the thoroughly discredited Richard Nixon, driven from office by (ahem) the threat of impeachment (ahem), managed to name a successor. And Gerald Ford, with his (unfair) stumblebum image and with the albatross of the Nixon pardon around his neck, became the only person ever -- ever -- to defeat The Great Communicator. Why? Because Ronald Reagan cut in line in 1976 and the Republicans decided it was Ford's turn for his own term. And Nixon's anointed -- literally, appointed -- successor became the ultimate proof of the Turn theory.
But George W. Bush's tacit deal with McCain -- back me on the war and immigration and I'll get my big fundraisers on your side -- has blown up in McCain's face. Indeed, this level of repudiation within a president's own party may be unmatched since 1896, when William Jennings Bryan and free silver took over the Democratic Party from Grover Cleveland and the gold bugs. That was a realigning repudiation. It set the stage for the whole Progressive Era and the 1920's pre-New Deal normalcy backlash.
The 1896 repudiation of Cleveland was based on policy. But, again with the lone exception of Ron Paul, the ongoing Republican battle isn't a policy fight. This is a repudiation based on Bush's incompetent execution of an incomplete policy. The crop of Republican candidates offer changes in style, or at most degrees of emphasis, but do not represent change on substance. Yet the Next Turn line looks ready to break. The Bush establishment cannot openly get behind another contender without causing him irreparable damage. Unless the machinations are subtle, the Republicans will hit the reset button in 2008.
There's a huge opening for an anti-war Republican like Paul or Chuck Hagel (whose Hamlet-like indecision makes him the Republican Mario Cuomo). A 51% opening in Iowa, says that poll. If the Republicans would go so far as to actually nominate an anti-war candidate, that would have to rank as the biggest slap in the face from a president's own party since 1884 -- when accidental incumbent Chester Arthur was actually denied nomination for a term of his own.