December 16, 2007

The Register Endorsements

The Des Moines Register gave its endorsements in the primary races. For the Democrats, the Register unsurprisingly went with the Establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton. For the Republicans, they gave a big surprise to John McCain, a man who ignored Iowa in 2000 and has gained almost no traction in 2008. Why McCain?

McCain is most ready to lead America in a complex and dangerous world and to rebuild trust at home and abroad by inspiring confidence in his leadership.

In an era of instant celebrity, we sometimes forget the real heroes in our midst. The defining chapter of McCain's life came 40 years ago as a naval aviator, when he was shot down over Vietnam. The crash broke both arms and a leg. When first seeing him, a fellow prisoner recalls thinking he wouldn't live the night. He was beaten and kept in solitary confinement, held 5 years. He could have talked. He did not. Son of a prominent Navy admiral, he could have gained early release. He refused.

The one-time playboy emerged from prison a changed, more serious man. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 and the Senate in 1986, he has built an unconventional political career by taking stands based on principle, not party dogma, and frequently pursuing bipartisanship.

In a way, the Register took a big risk with this endorsement. McCain has not gained much traction, and even McCain himself understands why. He chose to ignore Iowa in his first presidential race, and while he's been trying to make it up to Iowans this year, they've mostly ignored him. His position on ethanol does not endear him to the farmers, and his crusty relations with the religious Right has further separated him from Iowa caucusers.

The Register probably won't help with this argument. Singing high praises about bipartisanship doesn't usually boost candidates in the primaries. Voters want to find someone who will stand up for their beliefs, not bargain them away in compromises. This is one of the reasons legislators rarely win elections as President, or even nominations for their party. McCain's compromises have had more visibility than most as well, given the nature of the BCRA especially. While the Register points that out as one of his biggest achievements, most in his party believe it to be a disastrous infringement of the First Amendment and a deal-killer for the nomination.

They do point out better arguments for McCain as President as well. His courage under fire and in a POW camp shows a great deal about his character. He refused to sell out his fellow POWs by bailing out of the camp to allow Hanoi a cheap propaganda victory, insisting on the proper chronological release order. Forty years later, he criticized his party's President and Defense Secretary on war policy, and turned out to be right -- and has stuck with the hard-line approach despite the war's unpopularity.

He sticks to his principles, even when unpopular. The trick is figuring out where those bright lines are with McCain, and Republicans have had their share of frustration with him when they haven't matched up with the party.

McCain has almost no chance of getting an Iowa boost from the DMR's endorsement. However, the boost may come in New Hampshire, where he already has the Union-Leader's endorsement and where he could pull off an upset over Mitt Romney -- but it would take the mother of all upsets to do it.


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