Talk about overdoing a good thing. John McCain had the right idea: The Republican Party was too far to the right. The way to win back the White House was to recapture centrist voters with a message de-emphasizing ideology.
But when you're running as an underdog, you need more than good strategy; you also need error-free tactics. That's where McCain screwed up.
For a while, McCain's Teddy-Rooseveltian agenda of strenuous reform was a tonic to the party, a reminder that the GOP could be more than just a haven for cigarette companies, antiabortion crazies and Southern reactionaries.
But now the Arizona senator is making tactical mistakes -- errors that will probably cost him the Republican nomination. To be sure, out on the campaign trail, deprived of sleep, deprived of reality checks, surrounded by reporters eager for a ''hot'' story, a candidate can easily blunder. But then, winning the White House is not supposed to be easy.
No doubt McCain's speech on Monday, in which he attacked Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as ''agents of intolerance,'' was in part an honest reaction to the nasty tactics those two have used against his candidacy. But no doubt McCain also knew that any attack on the icons of the Religious Right would play extremely well among the chattering classes.
To that extent, McCain's rhetorical napalming worked. On Tuesday, The New York Times, the reliable barometer of liberal establishment thinking, editorialized glowingly that ''McCain is looking like a progressive.'' Perhaps because he's now addicted to good publicity, McCain went further that same day, accusing Robertson and Falwell of being an ''evil influence'' on the Republican Party.
The New York Times probably liked that, too, but GOPers didn't. Political partisans, both Democratic and Republican, may not always like their fellow party-mates, but they have, after all, chosen to be part of the same team.
Party loyalists tend to regard an attack on one as an attack on all. The liberal elites were likely appalled that George W. Bush won the three Republican contests on Tuesday -- expected in Virginia and North Dakota, unexpected in Washington state -- but then they were never in the GOP camp, anyway.
For a perspective on McCain, consider the fate of the last Republican the national media fell in love with, John Anderson. In 1980, the then-Illinois congressman, for two decades a moderate conservative, found himself going nowhere in his long-shot presidential run. So he attacked the National Rifle Association and set himself up as the high-minded ''conscience'' of the GOP.
Anderson was soon out of the Republican race, but, riding a magic media carpet, he ran as an independent in the fall, where he continued to win editorial accolades -- and less than 7 percent of the national vote. (Today, confirming the wisdom of Republicans who rejected him, Anderson is an out-and-out leftist, president of the World Federalist Association, advocating a super-United Nations.)
The better model for McCain's intra-party attacking would have been Bill Clinton. Eight years ago, the liberalism of the Democrats had cost them three straight presidential elections. Enter Clinton, ''New'' Democrat. In June 1992, he took on Sister Souljah, the black rapper, after one of her songs called for the killing of whites. In sticking up for middle-class values, Clinton was careful to distinguish her as a lone wacko, isolated from law-abiding blacks. And, having made his point, he let the issue drop, going on to win an election in which his overwhelming black vote exceeded the narrow margin of his victory.
Clinton, of course, is a master of having it both ways. But that's the art of politics. As for McCain, his attempt to ''Sister Souljah'' the Religious Right looks more like John Anderson's decision to exile himself from the Republican Party.
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