By James P. Pinkerton
A funny thing happened on Sen. John McCains path to the White House -- he was mugged in Memphis.
Far away from his real support base, which is Washington, the Arizona Republican finished a distant fifth in a straw poll of grass-roots activists at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on Saturday in Tennessee.
McCains weak showing is a reminder that the illusion of a political juggernaut, promoted by reporters and Beltway ideologues, is not the same thing as a real juggernaut -- the kind that rolls all the way to nomination and election. The proof is in the pudding: Of 1,427 ballots cast in Memphis, McCain won a measly 4.6 percent.
Yet the Mainstream Media (MSM) mostly buried this news. One reason is that the straw voting took place on Saturday night, after Sundays newspapers had been mostly put to bed.
But theres another reason: MSMers like McCain. Sundays Washington Post, for example, offered this McCain-as-front-runner headline: McCain Tests New Road to Nomination/2000s GOP Rebel Incorporates Support for Bush Into Quest for Change. From a McCainiac point of view, the wording couldnt get much better: Hes on the way to be being nominated, hes independent, but oh, yes, he also likes the president.
Only 19 paragraphs into the Post story did readers learn of the straw poll, which home-state Sen. Bill Frist won with 37 percent. Frists victory might not have been a surprise, but what was surprising -- which is to say, newsworthy -- was that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Yankee, came in second down there in Dixie.
One can say that its only a straw poll, two years before the real thing in the Iowa caucuses. But an important point can be made: The activists who showed up in Memphis -- the kind of folks who festoon themselves with buttons touting candidates and causes -- were a lot like the activists who will show up in Iowa and the other key states. Thats McCains big problem: The elites adore him, or at least respect him, but the activists, who actually pick the nominee, dont seem to like him very much.
Many activists dislike McCain for the same reason that the MSM like him: The senior senator from Arizona has criticized such conservative icons as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Some will say that Falwell and Robertson deserve criticism, but many GOPers thought McCain was too eager to tell reporters what they wanted to hear.
In addition, McCain has broken with Republican orthodoxy on such issues as tobacco, global warming and campaign finance. He even has said that he supports a Cabinet-level department for campaign-finance enforcement. Obviously the likes of Jack Abramoff need to be punished, Republicans might respond, but the disgraced lobbyist was nailed under the existing rules and so how many more rules and rule-makers do we need?
Its worth pausing over the Cabinet department idea for a bit: Imagine President McCain hiring an additional attorney general who would be out to make a name for himself or herself by unleashing strike forces of government lawyers who would monitor and scrutinize all elections, which is to say, monitor and scrutinize free speech.
Meanwhile, McCains Democratic allies in Congress, seizing on the news generated by this new department, agitate for full public financing of all politics. Its easy to see MSMers and lefty activists loving this power prospect, but do conservatives really yearn to see the 44th president creating a Department of Campaign Prosecution, to be followed, eventually, by a Department of Socialized Politics?
The answer from Memphis was loud and clear: No to McCain. Grover Norquist, president of the grass-roots-y Americans for Tax Reform, who has crossed swords with McCain on issues ranging from taxes to campaign finance, has blunt advice for the senator: Spend less time on Meet the Press and more time speaking to Reagan Republican issues.
Thats good advice. But for McCain, the MSM candidate, it might be too late.
Special to Newsday