The Time for Sister Souljahs

Michael Cohen argues McCain needs a Sister Souljah moment:

Today, polls suggest that the American electorate prefers the Democratic Party on virtually every major domestic issue. If Barack Obama wanted to slap down a politically unhelpful liberal interest group he’d be hard pressed to find one. The same, however, cannot be said of the Republican Party and John McCain, and here is where Republicans could learn a great deal from Bill Clinton.

As social conservatives, foreign policy neo-conservatives and anti-tax and pro-business voices have come to dominate the G.O.P. coalition, the Republican Party has become as closely linked, both politically and in terms of policy, to their special interest groups as Democrats were to theirs in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s.

John McCain’s political evolution, or possibly devolution, during the last eight years speaks volumes about the hold of these special interests. During his 2000 race for the Republican nomination, McCain openly derided the religious leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, as agents of intolerance.

Today, he actively seeks the support of such far right religious figures and has delivered a number of major speeches in recent weeks that narrowly appeal to social conservative audiences, on topics from defending religious freedom to attacking activist judges. In 2001 and 2003, Mr. McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts, but today he apes the supply-side economic theory and militant anti-tax orthodoxy of Grover Norquist and Club for Growth. Like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis in the 1980s, Mr. McCain has demonstrated little choice but to embrace the policy agenda of his party’s most prominent interest groups. His fealty to these groups not only limits his political mobility, but it threatens his once unimpeachable reformist image.

In 2000, John McCain declared of Republicans: “we are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests.” But Roosevelt split from the G.O.P. because of its growing identification with the nation’s business trusts and its abandonment of progressive values. If Mr. McCain were the true descendant of Roosevelt, he would be running against the modern Republican Party and its special interests.

In the short-term Mr. McCain’s moves may seem like smart politics; lock up the conservative base and spend the summer and fall reaching out to moderate voters. But as a generation of Democrats can testify, once the party gets into bed with its special interest groups it’s not easy to end the relationship.

As loath as it might be for John McCain, taking a page from Bill Clinton and delivering the type of speech he gave 16 years ago cannot come soon enough.

McCain really did used to Sister Souljah the Republican party all the time.

But McCain feels like he learned a valuable lesson when he lost the GOP nomination eight years ago — Republicans do not reward rebels, they reward those who stick to the script. Those interest groups that make up the Republican coalition demand fealty, and dissenters do not fare well. Ever.

So, we get the John McCain we see today, who tends to disagree with the up-until-recently John McCain on almost everything. He could try another “Sister Souljah moment” and score points with independents and moderates, but I’d argue it’s too late — McCain has made his far-right bed and now he has to lie in it.

If he were to try to reinvent himself again, and go back to the persona that had no use for Republican orthodoxy, McCain would probably be in even worse shape than he is now — the right would be livid, and everyone else would see through the transparency of his pandering.

That strikes me as McCain’s big problem. He took the wrong lesson from 2000. He ran as a candidate who repudiated Republican orthodoxies in a primary, while having to appeal to the people most likely to hold those orthodoxies. Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment was after he had the nomination locked up, not when trying to win it. If McCain had run as a more orthodox Republican in 2000 and saved his repudiation of Republicans until the general election, we may well have been living under a McCain administration the last 8 years.

Instead, McCain had to repudiate all of his past repudiations of Republican orthodoxy to win this year, leaving him with no room to pivot back to the middle. A lot of McCain’s problems this year are caused by the campaign he ran in 2000. Given the differences between McCain’s 2000 and 2008 campaigns, a return to Sister Souljah politics would do nothing more for McCain than paint him as a pandering, power-hungry hypocrite.

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