G.O.P. Deserts McCain, and a 40-Year Habit

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There has been a lot of criticism of Senator John McCain and his campaign advisers for the touchstone strategic assumption they made in planning his presidential campaign. With Vice President Cheney having long ago ruled out running, Mr. McCain built his approach on the belief that he would be viewed as the Republican heir apparent. That meant rustling up big name consultants and then awaiting the deluge of campaign contributions needed to finance a Rolls Royce campaign.

As has become painfully evident now, that was not such a good bet. Mr. McCain’s aides kept their side of the bargain when it came to spending --high salaries for consultants, private planes for the candidate, multiple offices and Blackberries for all – but not when it came to fund-raising. Mr. McCain’s campaign is broke and his hopes of winning the nomination are, shall we say, diminished.

But was that fundamental assumption by Mr. McCain – that he would be the heir apparent for the nomination – really that misguided? The fact of the matter is that speaking historically at least (and with the caveat that one must today more than ever be careful in using political history to predict what might happen in these extraordinarily unsettled political times) Mr. McCain’s decision was certainly defensible.

Indeed, should he fail to win the nomination, one of the legacies of this election is not only what it says about Mr. McCain, but what it says about the typically well-ordered Republican Party: a departure from at least 40 years of history in which, for all the hustle and bustle of nominating contest, the party tends to anoint its successor early and stick with him. With rare exceptions, the Republican nomination goes to the vice president (George H. W. Bush), the candidate who came in second last time (Ronald Reagan) or someone who is for whatever reason clearly entitled to the nomination, because of stature or family lineage (President Bush).

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