Supporters of the Tea Party Movement say they are dedicated to the ideals and principles of the Founding Fathers. Wouldn’t it be ironic, then, if they succeeded in forcing from office a man who has shed as much blood for his country as any Patriot in the Revolutionary War?
That is exactly what might occur in Arizona, where Tea Party activists are considering whether to endorse former Rep. J.D. Hayworth over former POW and current Sen. John McCain in the state Republican primary on August 24th. The activists apparently are upset with McCain because, they say, he has a history of working across party lines on issues such as immigration and betrayed their conservative ideals by voting for the TARP bailout in 2008.
McCain clearly has a long record of bipartisanship, and has never been shy about putting his name on a Democratic bill if he thought it was in the public’s best interests. But criticizing him for being a big spender ignores the fact that he consistently ranks among the staunchest fiscal conservatives in the Senate, and is perhaps the person most responsible for today’s push to ban congressional earmarks. It also ignores the possibility that McCain, who holds a large but not insurmountable lead over Hayworth, may choose to run as an Independent if the Tea Partiers come out against him and his lead vanishes as a result.
For a number of reasons, that possibility is not as far-fetched as one would think.
For one thing, it suits McCain’s temperament, and would be in keeping with his reputation as a maverick, which for some reason he recently downplayed in an interview with Newsweek but, in fact, has admirably demonstrated throughout his career. It would also be consistent with the example set by his political ally in the Senate, Joe Lieberman, who ran and won as an Independent after being defeated by liberal Ned Lamont in the Connecticut Democratic primary in 2006.
Beyond this, running as an independent would be in keeping with the example set by McCain’s political hero, Theodore Roosevelt, who bolted the Republican Party when he was denied the GOP nomination in 1912 and ran for President on the Bull Moose ticket that year. Roosevelt lost his bid to return to the White House, but his decision to press on in the face of adversity no doubt holds some appeal for McCain, who has never been afraid to go it alone in pursuit of a cause in which he believes.
Of course, McCain wouldn’t be alone if he were to undertake such an effort. He has a group of longtime staff members who would be right by his side. In this regard, it should be noted that two of these staff members – his former Chief of Staff Mark Salter and his former strategist John Weaver – are currently working on Independent Tim Cahill’s campaign to become Governor of Massachusetts. If McCain needs guidance on how to run as a third party candidate, he would not have to look any further than these two loyalists and veteran political hands.
McCain is nothing if not a realist, and for him to run as an Independent, he would have to know he had a good shot at winning in November. Here, too, the numbers are on his side. McCain won nearly 80 percent of the vote in his Senate reelection bid in 2004, and nearly 70 percent of the vote in winning reelection six years earlier in 1998. In these and his previous victories, he demonstrated a bipartisan appeal that – Tea Party support or no — would be very difficult for a hard right candidate like J.D. Hayworth to beat.
In fact, one could imagine a scenario where John McCain wins reelection to the Senate by such a large margin running as an Independent that he develops a new, national following that is broader than the one he currently has. It would be a following wedded not to a political party, but to the 40 percent of Americans who consider themselves unaffiliated voters and reside in the political center. It would also be a following that would leave McCain well-positioned to mount a third and final bid for the Presidency – this time running as an Independent.
Owing to his age, he would pledge to serve only one term. But the campaign otherwise would be virtually identical to the one McCain waged in the 2000 Republican primary when he took on the establishment and nearly upset party favorite George W. Bush. It would be a campaign that would allow him to do what he does best — run as a maverick. It would also be a campaign that allows him to do what he was unable to do in 2008 — select the running mate he wants, not the one his consultants told him to pick.
More than anything, though, it would be a campaign that would allow McCain to run to the right of Barack Obama and to the left of the Tea Party. A campaign such as this one would leave him well-positioned to win not only independents who are concerned about the explosive growth of government under this administration, but Republicans who are turned off by the explosive rhetoric of the far right.
It could also make John McCain the Founding Father of a new center-right governing coalition in the United States — a coalition that would give him one last shot at winning the White House, and one that would owe its creation to the activists who once targeted him for defeat.
Now, that truly would be revolutionary.
Lou Zickar is the editor of The Ripon Forum, a centrist Republican journal of thought and opinion that was first published on the campus of Harvard University in 1965 and is published today by The Ripon Society in Washington, DC.