McCain Bypasses Party Building

If a candidate for the presidency had an ambivalent relationship with his party, would he (a) go out of his way to show loyalty to the party by appearing on behalf of its candidates for lower office even when the two disagree on one issue, or (b) stiff the candidate by backing out of a promised appearance over said disagreement? If you answered (a), you’re one step ahead of John McCain:

Arizona Sen. John McCain on Tuesday canceled an appearance for a Republican congressional candidate who has attacked his opponent for supporting McCain’s immigration bill.
McCain, R-Ariz., was scheduled to speak Wednesday at a breakfast fundraiser for Brian Bilbray, who is locked in a close runoff race with Democrat Francine Busby for the San Diego-area seat left vacant by disgraced former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham. The event was expected to raise at least $65,000.
The winner of the June 6 special election will fill the remaining seven months left in Cunningham’s term.
In an e-mail sent to the Bilbray campaign, McCain spokesman Craig Goldman acknowledged that McCain and Bilbray “disagree on some of the issues related to immigration reform.” He said McCain did not want his appearance to distract from Bilbray’s campaign.

Let’s acknowledge the actions that McCain’s campaign did correctly. They reiterated their endorsement of Brian Bilbray over the Democrat, Frances Busby. They also pledged the maximum contribution to Bilbray’s campaign, $5000, from McCain’s Straight Talk America PAC. While these steps should be the minimum effort for supporting fellow Republicans in tight races, at least they did them.
However, McCain fails to understand the role of the presidential nominee even while he pursues it a second time. The nominee becomes the de facto party leader, and that role carries responsibilities beyond campaigning for the presidency in the general election. The national ticket needs to provide lift for other Republicans on the ticket in lower offices, and is expected to argue on their behalf regardless of individual policy differences. Immigration, while an important issue, is not the only reason we elect representatives to Congress. The failure to elect Bilbray might mean the difference between Democratic and GOP control of the lower chamber in the final two years of McCain’s campaign.
A party leader does not cancel appearances out of pique simply because a candidate in a close race disagrees with his pet legislation. Party leaders look after more than just their own narrow interests; they work to ensure that their party remains as united and broad as possible. McCain himself will have to argue for conservative support in any general election by reminding us that if we agree on 70% of the issues, it’s better than having someone take office who only agrees with us 30% of the time. How is this any different?
McCain has a reputation among conservatives for being brittle and self-serving. In this case, McCain has reinforced both perceptions. If he cannot see fit to put aside a policy difference over immigration, then he can hardly ask conservatives to do the same in 2008, and on a much larger list of issues than just immigration.
UPDATE: A CQ source in San Diego’s North Coast says that the district would not have reacted well to a McCain visit, and that perhaps Bilbray responded to pressure within the local GOP to distance himself from the Senator. Well, maybe, but it was the McCain people who canceled the appearance, and considering his reputation as a reformer, a McCain appearance in Duke Cunningham’s district in the aftermath of his removal from office would have carried some weight with centrists in San Diego. If this came from Bilbray and the North Coast GOP, it was pretty short-sighted.
UPDATE II: Another source in the North Coast says that Bilbray didn’t cancel the appearance. Bilbray, according to this knowledgeable source, is more of a moderate and would have preferred to have McCain appear at the fundraiser.