OXFORD, England – I’m from Virginia originally. Not the real Deep South where religious diversity means there are two different types of Protestants in town, but close enough. We’ve got good ol’ boys and rednecks and even a conservative Democrat or two. And, like most heavily Republican states, we’ve got the Christian Right.
Now, John McCain and George W. Bush rolled through my home state about a week ago, each campaigning to try and win what was the biggest prize of that day’s primaries. Bush was pretty predictable, cozying up to the governor and the senior senator. He mugged for the camera, kissed some babies, went to church. He went back to the basics, which for him involved smiling and opening his mouth as infrequently as possible when reporters were present.
John McCain, on the other hand, seemed to go about things a different way. He visited a high school in Fredericksburg, deep in the heart of Dixie where we truly believe the South will rise again. McCain got up in the middle of that high school gymnasium and proceeded to give his usual stump speech for a good 20 minutes. He praised the fine people of Virginia and all the hard work they put in each day. He talked about reform in all manners and bringing dignity back to the White House. It was pretty typical stuff, and it was received with the pretty typical response of applause.
And then, the good Senator changed tactics. He started talking about Christian Conservatives and the influence of religion on the Republican Party. Then, before winding it up, McCain decided to talk about Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, the patron saints of the “Moral Majority” (my apologies to Robertson and Falwell if they resent being associated with sainthood, the Catholic institution that it is). The Senator got a little fired up at this point and started talking about inclusiveness and bigotry. He referred to these two moralists as “agents of intolerance” and associated with others that he perceived as bigots such as Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton.
Now I’m not sure what McCain thinks he’s doing here. He’s running for the Republican Party nomination and he just got up and criticized two men who represent about one-third of all Republicans. Whatever one thinks about Sharpton and Farrakhan, in the GOP any association with them is an act of heresy. I’ll give you an example. McCain’s tactic would be like if I ran for College Council President at Williams and then put a note on everyone’s S.U. box criticizing people who wear fleece. It probably wouldn’t help my campaign all that much.
But then, I got to wondering; maybe John McCain’s thinking bigger. Unlike the other establishment candidates whom Bush was able scare off by convincing them they couldn’t win, John McCain wasn’t a regular Republican. Sure, he’s got a reliably conservative voting record, but he’s got an independent streak that runs beyond party affiliation. McCain seeks, first and foremost, free and fair elections that don’t revolve around money or influence peddling. This, unfortunately, makes him a radical in the Republican Party, and that won’t be tolerated.
So maybe John McCain’s not merely trying to get nominated, but trying to change the Republican Party itself. He likens himself all the time to Teddy Roosevelt, who was possibly the first progressive president. Maybe he’s trying to go back to his roots. Maybe he thinks he can swing the Republican Party back to the mainstream and away from the extremism that it and its anointed candidate George W. Bush have come to represent.
Maybe he thinks that his best chance is a couple years down the road after the party swings back to the center. I don’t know if he’s right, and I don’t know if I’d ever vote for him, but one thing is for sure. As many people as there are that John McCain alienates with his words, there are more who agree with him and will not support a candidate or party that tries to win an election by using undue influence to circumvent the democratic process.