Mark Steyn appeared on Hugh Hewitt’s show today. The whole interview is worth reading, but I’ll focus on Steyn’s comment about John McCain. He led off with this:
McCain is deluding himself if he thinks that he is going to get the kind of ride he got in the year 2000. I think if he’s running as the frontrunner, rather than as the insurgent to George W. Bush, I think if he’s the frontrunner, then I think the media are going to point out how old and exhausted and elderly and cranky he seems, and I think he will have a much tougher ride than he did in 2000. . . I think he’s very thin-skinned. . .that is what was clear to me in 2000. I actually regard him as a very unpleasant man, and I don’t say that lightly.
Hugh then asked about McCain’s reported comment (in a Vanity Fair piece) that “I think the [border] fence is least effective, but I’ll build the God (blanked) fence if they want it.” Steyn replied:
[F]rom McCain’s point of view, that sounds great, because the press liked that kind of talk, because it has a kind of cynicism to it, and a contempt for the conservative base. It’s blunt and plain spoken, but not blunt and plain spoken in the service of important truths, but blunt and plain spoken in the service of putting down and insulting and condescending to the conservative base. And that’s why the press likes him. So that line, you know, when he delivers a line like that, you can more or less hear, see the eyes of the Washington Post and New York Times guys light up. That’s what they like about him. I saw him slap down some poor mill worker in northern New Hampshire, in what I thought was a grotesque and offensive and insulting way, and yet the press thought it was great. . . .
Here is a guy who was in many ways a conventional, mainstream Republican conservative when he started out. Now, his only political bedrock belief seems to be in his own indispensibility. Everything other than that is negotiable. I don’t think that’s someone who necessarily makes a good candidate.
To me, McCain has two major potential liabilities as a candidate. The first is the one Steyn points to, albeit too harshly. He may be too thin-skinned and, frankly, too old and cranky to make it through almost two years of campaigning, and the criticism that goes with it, without causing many otherwise receptive voters to come to something approaching Steyn’s view of his personality.
Second, McCain has staked out the most hawkish available territory with respect to Iraq. Although I don’t share his enthusiasm for a troop surge, I give him some credit for taking this unpopular position. But unless a surge takes place and proves successful, McCain’s straight, against-the-grain talk on this vital issue could, by 2008, make it extremely difficult for him to win the general election.
JOHN dissents in part: I agree with all of the above, except I think there is one other favorable, and more likely, option with respect to Iraq: that is, that the surge doesn’t take place at all. In that event, McCain will retain his hawkish credibility but will have no failure to account for. If our Iraq venture is deemed relatively successful by the summer of 2008, McCain will only get credit for having advocated a stronger effort. And if we are perceived, by then, as having failed, McCain can say, if only…
PAUL replies: John is right about the scenario in which we “stay the course” and succeed, but I’m not convinced he’s right about the scenario in which we stay the course and fail. Today most voters do not favor increasing our troop strength in Iraq. I’d be surprised if more than one-third of the electorate favors a surge. If we continue on the same path we’re on now without success, the fraction favorably disposed to a surge (even in retrospect) is unlikely to increase, and might well drop. When something is unpopular, advocating more of it is risky, whether the advice is followed or not.