By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire -- The voters have spoken, and George W. Bush leaves New Hampshire looking like nothing so much as an Internet stock whose bubble has burst. It wasn‘t his current performance, his daily rounds as a candidate, after all, that prompted all those Republican donors, governors and congressmen to invest so heavily in the W. juggernaut. It was the expectation of future performance. W. was the sure thing, the bet that couldn’t go wrong. So what if his speeches sounded like so much elevator music? So long as W. was inevitable, the donations to his campaign kept pace with the higher end of the NASDAQ.
In the aftermath of Tuesday‘s primary here, W.’s stock has been downgraded from the inevitable to the merely plausible. John McCain‘s stunning victory is a body blow to the Bush campaign, but McCain has to work another miracle in South Carolina in a couple of weeks to be seen as a candidate with genuinely national appeal.
Democrats can only hope that McCain goes on to weaken Bush all across the nation -- only not to the point where McCain actually wins the nomination. All of Al Gore’s attacks on Bushonomics, and how it will put our prosperity at risk, will be as naught against McCain, whose macroeconomic program is all but indistinguishable from Gore‘s. (In fact, one policy wonk I spoke with on Tuesday asserted that Gore’s tax cut is actually larger than McCain‘s.) That could reduce the general election to a referendum on the comparative characters of Gore and McCain -- a thought that no Democrat would want to contemplate.
Bill Bradley did well enough on Tuesday to buy himself another month. The next Democratic contest comes on March 7, when the party has primaries in 14 states, including California, New York and Ohio. It’s still hard to see how Bradley will prevail. New Hampshire‘s demographics (white), economics (upscale and largely nonunion) and election laws (allowing independents to vote in party primaries) were all but tailored to the contours of his campaign -- and still he did not win. Neither he nor Gore is likely to get much of a bounce out of New Hampshire, and Bradley needed the bounce far more than Gore, who will win the nomination unless Bradley can spark a firestorm during the next five weeks. Bradley closed fast in New Hampshire (he won 57 percent of the Democratic voters who didn’t pick their man until the last couple of days), but firestorms still seem beyond his capacity.
Besides, one firestorm per state seems enough, and John McCain has all but burned this place down.
Though a number of his Republican Senate colleagues plainly detest him, as do many prominent Republicans in his very own Arizona, McCain has emerged from New Hampshire as the man you can‘t really dislike. He goes to Portsmouth and tells his listeners that he might close down their naval shipyard if he becomes president, and he carries Portsmouth anyway. His life story -- most particularly, his time in a North Vietnamese POW camp -- inoculates him among conservatives. Moreover, he is a conservative: an Arizona Republican in the Goldwater tradition. Unlike Goldwater, however, he not only has staked out the center, but also makes the occasional odd noise that could, with a strange breeze blowing and the stars aligned just so, even make him palatable to voters who are left of center.
His signature issue, campaign-finance reform, has support across the political spectrum. He rails, in his best Eisenhower manner, against wasteful military spending (something that only military heroes can get away with). Like George W., he says he wants merit pay for teachers, but unlike George W., he makes it clear that that should only follow a considerable, across-the-board raise throughout the teaching profession.
Worse yet, he doesn’t even seem anti-government. He attacks Bush for failing to devote the surplus to saving Social Security and Medicare (that is, he fully grasps the political appeal of Clintonian centrism). During last week‘s debate, another candidate was discussing levying taxes on e-commerce (which McCain, like any good Republican, opposes), and suddenly McCain blurted out, “Remember, it was government programs that invented the Internet.” That’s the kind of thing Al Gore says. That‘s the kind of thing people well to Al Gore’s left say. What‘s going on here?
Then there’s McCain‘s manner. Some of the time, he’s still a top-gun wiseass. Asked at his 114th New Hampshire town meeting, in Petersborough two days before the vote, whether he supports the legalization of hemp, he briskly says that he doesn‘t -- then adds, “Good luck with your crop.” He calls the crowd’s attention to the assembled media (like they could miss them), introducing them as “Trotskyists and communists.” Trotskyists is a nice touch -- as if he‘s actually studied their ideological gradations.
A number of McCain’s traveling campaign staffers hail from Southern California, and when I arrive for my day on the bus, it‘s apparent that they actually view me as a real-life almost-Trotskyist. When I tell Todd Harris, an L.A. homey who’s the campaign‘s New Hampshire press secretary, that I actually like some things about his candidate, a look of horror -- part mock, part genuine -- sweeps across his face. “Don’t say anything nice in the Weekly,” he implores.