Simba Roars

I am Simba, Hear me Roar

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I Am Simba, Hear Me Roar
BY MAX RUSH || AUGUST 2000

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Senator John McCain officially became the Republican nominee for President of the United States at the party’s national convention last week in Philadelphia. Just seven months ago, members of the Republican Party establishment and the news media would have told you that such a reality was “improbable” and more than a few would have used the word “impossible.” No matter, John McCain has shocked all of them and become the Republican candidate for president. So how did he do it? How did a comparatively little-known senator from Arizona emerge from the New Hampshire primary on a clear and undeterred path to the nomination?

David Foster Wallace’s compelling description of the McCain candidacy in Rolling Stone has attracted much attention recently as the definitive assessment as John McCain: The Man and the (anti)Candidate. Wallace provides a first-hand account of the Straight Talk Express, the glorious emergence from New Hampshire, and the unbelievable surprise victory in South Carolina that sealed McCain’s fate as the likely Republican candidate. Wallace’s profile deserves praise and commendation. Thanks to candid conversations with some of McCain’s inner circle and some who worked for his rival, George W. Bush, this piece serves to complement it.

After McCain’s compelling victory in New Hampshire, the Bush campaign began to reassess its path to Philadelphia, and it agreed that John McCain had to be stopped, and he had to be stopped quickly and decisively in the South Carolina primary – known for its outsized role in breaking the tie between Iowa and New Hampshire and effectively choosing the Republican nominee. For its part, the McCain campaign knew that victory in South Carolina was an uphill battle. Governor Bush was more effectively campaigning on the conservative values aligned with most South Carolinians, and he had the total support of the Campbell Machine – an apparatus built by Lee Atwater and former governor Carroll Campbell. The Machine effectively controlled South Carolina’s Republican Party. The Bush team refused to risk anything. The word came down from Karl Rove that it was time to kill McCain’s candidacy. South Carolina voters soon faced an intensely negative effort from shadow Bush forces.

The tactics are now infamous and have perhaps permanently ruined a political future for George W. Bush and annihilated bipartisan respect for the Bush family as statesmen. Push polling and printed flyers bannered the state and implied McCain’s daughter was a “Negro.” In reality, Bridget McCain is adopted from Bangladesh. Some began wondering aloud if John McCain – decorated Vietnam war hero – was actually a Manchurian Candidate who was brainwashed in Asia and returned as part of a plot to bring America to its knees. Emails alleged that McCain slept with prostitutes or had infected his wife with a sexually transmitted disease. Others suggested that Cindy McCain was an unhinged drug addict.

Deputy campaign manager Roy Fletcher said his candidate was sickened over the allegations and falsehoods. “We knew it was coming but the attacks were so fabricated and so vile, we truly didn’t know how to respond at first.” McCain toured the state and would sometimes be interrupted by a heckler who gave a face and a voice to one of the otherwise murky allegations. Sometimes voters would pull him close on the rope line and, almost embarrassedly, ask if one of the rumors were true. It was taking a toll on McCain.

Against the backdrop of the personal smears was a salient political issue in South Carolina. The Palmetto State waves the Confederate flag over its capitol. Ritually, candidates are asked to comment on it when they arrive from New Hampshire. Both McCain and Bush said the matter was one that should be left to the state. McCain, however, had previously gone further, saying that he personally didn’t believe the flag should be flying at all. Now, as a candidate on the ballot in South Carolina, he had some explaining to do. McCain’s team cautioned him to avoid the issue, but some felt he had an obligation to address it. Even those advisers were divided. Some said he had to pander to win, others said he had to stick to the straight talk that had worked so well in New Hampshire.

The issue finally came to a head at a town hall at Clemson University, where McCain was asked by a middle-aged man wearing a Confederate hat what his answer was. “And please don’t BS me,” the man said. McCain took a deep breath.

“Thank you for that question,” he said. “I know this is an issue that a lot of you have on your mind. It’s one that matters a lot to this state, and so I want to answer this directly, and I want to be very honest with all of you. The truth of the matter – and I don’t think this is some politician-speak – is that this matter has to be decided here in South Carolina by the people of this state. Full stop. Now, I know that answer doesn’t satisfy a lot of you, so I’ll be honest. If I lived here, if I had to vote, I would vote to take the flag down. But I’m from Arizona, and I don’t have the same state heritage as you all do down here, and that’s exactly why I shouldn’t be the one making the decision. It’s exactly why the good people of South Carolina have to make this decision for themselves, and I mean that, and I will oppose any effort by the federal government or otherwise to tell you what to do about it.”

The man nodded and grabbed the microphone back. “That’s the thing, Mr. McCain. You don’t know what it means down here. It ain’t racist, it’s –”

McCain interrupted him. “My friend, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I am saying that my opinion doesn’t really matter because I’m not from here. I gave you some straight talk – I told you how I feel right now, but my opinion on this subject isn’t as important as yours is, or your wife’s is, or your cousin’s, or your neighbor’s. Your president shouldn’t lie to you, and he shouldn’t try to run in the middle of the issue. I’m being straight with you, and I hope you can respect that.”

Somehow, McCain had threaded the needle. Afterwards, the man in the hat said he was probably going to vote for McCain. “I don’t like that he thinks we should take it down, but that there is a man who might be our next president, and he just told me straight to my face that my opinion on something matters more than his. I like that. I can get behind that. I don’t know how I’m going to vote, but honest to God it might be for him.”

McCain’s team felt buoyed by his answer, but the other problems had not gone away. Bush’s team and its allies continued their smear on the man and his family. Reporters started receiving less access to the candidate than they had in New Hampshire. They were told (off-the-record, of course) that it was because the attacks were getting to him and his temper was coming out. They didn’t want any outburst on camera or recorded for future use. They were isolating.

Internally, McCain was outraged, and his staff was clueless about how to respond. It wasn’t as though Bush was leveling these in his name. In fact, few if any of the smears could be definitively traced back to his campaign and staff. The candidate, or anti-candidate as Wallace has dubbed him, hunkered down and prepared for a debate with Bush on Larry King Live four days before the primary. In retrospect, that debate seems to have furthered McCain’s effort. When the issue of abortion came up, he sat back while Alan Keyes – the obscure third candidate who may actually have helped the Arizona senator – hammered Bush on inconsistencies in his platform, allowing McCain to sit back and tout his pro-life record in the Senate without seeming inconsistent himself. Then, at the end of the debate, McCain delivered a punch that was a sign of his strategy to come in the final days of the South Carolina fight.

In a question about the tone of the campaign, McCain directly took the fight to Bush, asking him to denounce the attacks on him and his family. Bush hesitated at first, denying his campaign had anything to do with them before almost immediately backtracking (lest the truth come out) and saying he was “pretty sure” they didn’t have anything to do with him. McCain smelled blood. “Which is it, governor?”

Bush stammered. “I’m saying that I’m focused on issues like education, and I can’t control everyone in my staff –”

“You can’t control your own staff?” McCain asked, almost innocently.

“Well, that’s not what I meant. Look. I am focused on a positive race. That’s how I want to win this thing, and if some people on my team are straying from our positive message, well, I’ll do something about it.”

Larry King followed-up: “Are people straying from that message governor? You seem to have gone back-and-forth on if this is something your team is actually engaged in.”

Bush tried to wrap it up: “I am not – I haven’t authorized any of these crazy and ridiculous rumors.”

King pressed on: “What rumors?”

Bush didn’t want to engage. “I’m not going to get into each specific one, Larry, I don’t want to give them voice on television, but John McCain is a good man – an honorable man. He’d make a fine president -”

“I think so, too!” McCain quipped.

Bush laughed. “We disagree on some issues. We have a different set of experiences. I think I’d be a better president, yes. All I can say is this – I want to win this thing by running a decent and positive campaign that’s focused on the issues. If I find out someone on my staff is doing otherwise – I’ll let them go. Pure and simple. Sure thing. You betcha. That’s the kind of guy I am.”

And with that, Larry King asked the candidates for closing statements and the debate ended. McCain’s camp felt confident. They felt that Bush had been forced to address his conduct in the race and that it was a losing issue. All the more, the salacious innuendo had stayed off the television screens, making sure that the damaging message wasn’t further amplified for voters who had yet to receive an email or a call or a flyer on their car windshield.

There’s not total agreement about who had the initial idea for the knockout blow. Some credit Fletcher. Some credit a ballsy young staffer, Steve Schmidt, who came on to the McCain campaign after the New Hampshire victory after having previously worked for Lamar Alexander, a lesser-known presidential candidate. Others say the idea was John’s himself. It seems most likely that the idea emerged in some kind of a brainstorming session after the debate. No matter how it happened, it worked.

On the Thursday evening before the primary, with enough time to spare for print deadlines, McCain delivered the most important press conference of his life. In fact, it was carried live by the local South Carolina networks. For just about 15 minutes, the candidate spoke candidly about the “smears on his family,” accusing some in the Republican establishment who were “afraid of a change candidate” of lying about them in order to win an election.

“I was expecting the lies about me,” he admitted. “If the Bush campaign and its allies want to attack me for my service in Vietnam, that’s fine. I’m fair game. My wife, however, is not fair game. My daughter is not fair game. It is absolutely unbecoming of any candidate or campaign for the highest office in our land that they would stoop to this level in an effort to mislead voters and steal an election.” He avoided the details, afraid that being specific would actually give the rumors life, but he could not have been more direct in his condemnation of Bush and the attacks. Some compared it to Richard Nixon’s famed “Checkers speech” from the 1952 campaign.

In what became a miraculous 48-hour stretch for McCain’s campaign, the Friday papers all carried a giant picture of McCain swarmed by microphones in front of a row of American flags with headlines about his integrity. The stories carried much of McCain’s speech and featured declinations of comment from Bush staffers. Then, later that day, news broke that family values candidate George W. Bush had received a DUI in his youth. The Bush campaign hid from the press, hoping to wait out the rest of the day before addressing the matter after polls closed in South Carolina. McCain, by contrast, added another late-night event on primary eve.

On Saturday morning, when Republicans in South Carolina woke up and grabbed the paper, a split front-page carried the DUI story and the story of McCain’s quest to restore honor to the presidency. It was a devastating side-by-side for the Bush effort, who realized too late that the DUI matter wasn’t going away. All day, voters went to vote. At night, the exit polls suggested a tight race and so did the early returns. It went well into the night, but Arizona senator John McCain emerged with 52% of the vote, beating Bush by 5 points. It was a comfortable-enough victory that McCain’s campaign declared a win and jumped on a plane to Michigan.

The Bush campaign was in freefall. Bush appeared for an interview and apologized for the DUI, admitting he behaved irresponsibly during his youth, but the candidate was visibly shaken by the South Carolina results and struggled to find his footing. He lost Michigan the next Tuesday. He lost Virginia (if barely) and Washington the Tuesday after that.

On March 7th, Super Tuesday, McCain carried the three biggest states: California, New York, and Ohio. It gave him 394 delegates for the evening. Bush had racked up enough wins in smaller states to take 204 delegates that night. The race was still close, but insiders began to question whether Bush was as strong of a candidate as they had previously believed. Had they been mistaken to clear the path for him? Doubts were setting in. These doubts seemed confirmed when Colin Powell – a well-respected Republican general – announced his endorsement of John McCain in a New York Times editorial. Bush’s team wasn’t completely panicked. Their firewall was coming on March 14th, when – as Karl Rove put it – “The South would remind McCain he’s too liberal to be the Republican nominee.”

Powell’s endorsement further fueled McCain’s post-Super Tuesday momentum and the anti-candidate began to campaign like the presumptive nominee. Yet, it wasn’t enough to hedge off a terrible March 14th – a date with several Southern contests. Bush swept and surpassed McCain in the delegate count by 51. McCain’s campaign was back on life support.

So, the candidate went to Illinois and got back on his bus. In fact, he’d been there already. While Bush traveled to sure up support in the South, McCain skipped the contests and focused on the Land of Lincoln. He went to county after county. He had big rallies in Chicago and Springfield. He did smaller town halls and stopped at diners in rural parts of the state. “We decided if we were going to win, we had to win Illinois, and we tried to do it the best way we knew how: We acted like Illinois was just a really big New Hampshire.” In the days after Super Tuesday, Bush’s campaign had been unable to soothe the nerves of anxious donors, but their March 14th performance gave those donors confidence and money came pouring back in. The dollars went to television in Illinois and Pennsylvania. If Bush won both, it was over

On March 21st, a resilient McCain scraped by and took Illinois by 2.1%. It was enough to earn him all 64 delegates. The Bush campaign had been prepared for McCain to win Illinois. They had not been prepared for the momentum the state would generate. The Chicago Times declared McCain the “Comeback Kid.” Wednesday morning, on the Today Show, McCain told his supporters they could have confidence in their effort once more. “This election is about who can beat Al Gore. It’s about who can restore integrity to the White House. It’s about who can reform the way Washington works. Illinois proved last night that I’m the best candidate to do it.”

On April 4th, the candidates came to a draw, but while Bush took Wisconsin, McCain won the real prize: Pennsylvania. McCain was up by 54 delegates and the nomination appeared decided. Republicans in Washington started calling Bush, telling him to get out instead of dragging it to the convention. McCain had bested him, and they needed to come together for the Party. Karl Rove believed that the nomination would still be Bush’s, and he convinced the governor to stay in the race.

The rest of April was brutal, and when the first three primaries were held in May, Bush came out on top in Indiana and North Carolina. McCain managed only to win Washington, D.C. and his margin over Bush shrunk to just 17 delegates. The next week, McCain took Nebraska and Bush walked away with West Virginia. After all of the voting was done in May, McCain’s lead on Bush was down to just 16 delegates. The nomination would be decided on the final day of voting. Both campaigns genuinely expected victory.

McCain’s emerged victorious in four of the five states. He had 966 pledged delegates to Bush’s 874. He had won the popular vote. He appeared the Republican nominee, but the Bush campaign was plotting to win it at the Convention, and the rules said they could. McCain, and the press, declared himself the Republican candidate for president. Al Gore did, too, congratulating McCain and saying he looked forward to the fight ahead. Bush’s campaign, however, wasn’t ready to give in.

The defiance on the part of Bush worried some in the establishment, though. Yes, they preferred him to McCain, but to overturn the will of the primary electorate so blatantly – they worried that the Party couldn’t recover in time for November. Some of Bush’s top endorsers, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and both members of the 1996 ticket, Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, came out for McCain and called on Bush to drop out of the race. Rove pushed the governor to stay in, but a phone call from his father made up his mind: He was doing the right thing and getting out it.

The campaigns agreed that Bush would release his delegates to avoid a nasty floor fight, but McCain allowed his name to be placed into nomination and the delegates from Texas were allowed to vote in unison for Bush. The rest switched to support the senator from Arizona, their new nominee.

And somehow, on the floor of the convention hall in Philadelphia, the anti-candidate became the Republican nominee for president.
 
It's Frist

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It's Frist: McCain Selects Fellow Senator as Running Mate
BY ALISON MITCHELL || JULY 29, 2000


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(MANCHESTER, NH) -- At one of the largest rallies of his campaign, John McCain made an important announcement. He selected a vice presidential running mate. The choice is Republican senator Bill Frist of Tennessee. Frist is seen as a rising star within Washington circles but was not believed to be in serious contention for the Republican ticket until last week, when a McCain staffer leaked that he had been added to the short list. The selection process began in the midst of the McCain/Bush battle for the Republican nomination and continued in earnest - and secret. After Bush dropped out, things kicked into full gear and communications adviser Steve Schmidt oversaw the majority of the vetting and interview process. According to sources within the McCain campaign, the candidate had narrowed the list to five by the time he Bush exited: activist Gary Bauer, former cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole, Michigan governor John Engler, South Carolina congressman Lindsey Graham, and Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. McCain felt pressured to pick a socially conservative running mate who would assure the base they had nothing to fear. Slowly, it became clear that the list did not have the right candidate on it.

Bauer was seen as too little experienced and too controversial. Dole didn't create the necessary good will with the Republican base and neither did Engler. Graham is a close friend of McCain's and campaign vigorously for him in the definitive South Carolina primary, but McCain was convinced that he didn't have the national star power to join the ticket. That left Santorum, who seemed the perfect fit. A socially conservative senator from an important swing state. Insider accounts suggest that McCain and Santorum met twice but that the presumptive nominee was not impressed with Santorum and could not see him as a vice president. It was Schmidt who suggested the campaign take a look at Frist.

A former doctor, Frist has gained attention on the national stage since entering the Senate. He was part of the 1994 Republican wave and in many ways symbolizes what that movement was all about - an emphasis on small government and family values. As the nearest doctor, Frist responded when two Capitol police officers were shot in 1998. He was unable to save their lives, but the story was carried across the country and Frist sat for many interviews. His politics clearly put him in the Republican party's conservative wing, and the announcement today was loaded with symbolism to underscore that.

McCain announced Frist at an outdoor rally on the front lawn of Saint Anselm College, a stone's throw from the campus monastery. It was perhaps the most pro-life setting that the campaign could find. Frist hammered home is training as a medical doctor and his time as a "defender of family values" throughout his speech. He also promised to restore integrity to the White House - a line meant as an attack on the Clinton White House, still reeling from the president's impeachment. The Gore campaign remains confused about how to handle the impeachment and fallout. While Clinton remains popular, the Gore campaign has actively distanced the candidate from his boss, suggesting that they believe the attacks on Clinton's character are working.

It remains to be seen who Gore will pick, but his team insists that the choice of Frist changes nothing. Privately, some have said that the selection of McCain has recalculated the Gore campaign's thinking. He now feels more pressure to choose someone who can combat McCain's issues and background effectively on the campaign trail.
 
Gore Selects Kerry

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Gore Selects John Kerry as Running Mate
BY ALISON MITCHELL || AUGUST 11, 2000

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(PHILADELPHIA, PA) -- At a large outdoor rally on a gorgeous summer day, Al Gore told America who he wants to succeed him as vice president: Massachusetts senator John Kerry. The choice raised eyebrows given the close working relationship Kerry and McCain, two Vietnam veterans who gained notoriety after returning home, have developed in the Senate. According to sources close to the vice president, Gore felt that he needed a veteran on the ticket to counterpunch a likely McCain talking point. He also wanted to someone who could be seen as a symbolic shot at the Republican ticket, much like McCain's choice of Bill Frist, who hails from Gore's home state, was seen as a deliberate punch at the Democrats. Kerry's experience and friendship seems to do that.

Kerry, 56, is a decorated Vietnam veteran who returned home from Asia to become a prominent anti-war activist. He appeared before Congress multiple times to speak out against the war before running for office himself. He spent two years as the Lt. Governor of Massachusetts before being elected to the United States Senate in 1984. Kerry has credited his experience in Vietnam with much of his passion for elected office. Interestingly, the Kerry choice creates a novelty. All four candidates hail from the United States Senate. It is exceedingly rare to have a ticket without a single governor or former governor on it. It may be a sign of increasing concern about foreign policy and the nationalization of the American political process.

Gore, in announcing Kerry, said that the senator has "considerable experience" and would be ready to lead "on day one." He also said that he looks forward to a vibrant and energetic Democratic National Convention in a few days. Kerry said he was ready for the fight ahead and is eager to hit the campaign trail.

Gore narrowed the vice presidential search to three names: Kerry, Joseph Lieberman, a senator from Connecticut, and New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, who would have been the second woman in history chosen to join a national ticket. The first was Geraldine Ferraro, a Democratic congresswoman from New York, who was selected in 1984. Ms. Ferraro recently lost a bid for the United States Senate in her home state. Gore's advisers cautioned that Lieberman, who was critical of President Clinton during the impeachment trial, may have actually underscored the Republican message about returning integrity to the White House. They were also worried about selecting Governor Shaheen, who has been largely untested nationally.

The Gore/Kerry ticket will hold two events together in Florida tomorrow before flying to Los Angeles for fundraising events ahead of the Democratic National Convention there. After the convention, the new pair will embark on a four-state bus tour through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan.
 
From Hanoi Hilton to the White House (2000 Election Update)

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From the Hanoi Hilton to the White House
BY MAX RUSH || DECEMBER 2000


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At few points during the McCain campaign did it seem likely that the Vietnam veteran and Arizona senator would be elected the 43rd President of the United States. The majority of Americans feel confident about the U.S. economy. The incumbent two-term president is of the opposite party of McCain and is quite popular for someone who has been president for eight years – and survived an impeachment battle. Even during the primary, McCain clawed the nomination away from the prohibitive favorite, George W. Bush, the son of the last Republican president who was better-funded, better-known, and in some ways a better fit for the Republican electorate.

Yet, despite all of these improbabilities, John McCain will be inaugurated as the 43rd president on January 20, 2001. How did it happen?

Democrats have been quick to blame the Gore campaign for a myriad of general strategy mistakes. A growing consensus seems to be that Gore distanced himself too much from Clinton, refusing to campaign aggressively with the incumbent in states where he was popular. With few exceptions, Gore was unable to maintain states Clinton had won over from the Republicans during his 1992 and 1996 campaigns. They point to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s victory in the New York Senate election as proof that the Clinton name is not as toxic as it was made out to be.

As these accusations ramp up, so, too, has the defense from the Gore/Kerry operation. Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Gore, is quick to point out how most of the Democratic party had agreed on a distancing strategy early on. Perhaps it was wrong, in retrospect, but when Gore began his campaign in 1999, there were real questions about integrity in the Clinton White House. Republicans had been at the throats of the Clintons for years. There was a sense that Americans would not want another four years of the vitriol and disfunction in Washington. There was an appetite for change. The Gore team calculated that they needed to create some space in order to win over undecided and independent voters. Maybe they were wrong, Brazile has admitted, but no one said so at the time.

Some believe that Gore’s debate performances were too lackluster. His repeated mention of his social security lockbox attracted ridicule on Saturday Night Live and in the press. The Gore campaign again pushes back, pointing to internal polls that showed social security was a top concern for the electorate, especially in Florida. The Gore/Kerry campaign felt they needed Florida’s 25 electoral votes, and with them they would have won on election night. If anything, they say, they didn’t talk about social security enough.

Others argue that the Democrats didn’t pay attention to their own backyard. Their obsession with winning Florida and Ohio – two states that ultimately went to McCain – took resources away from Oregon, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. Combined, those states are 27 electoral votes, more than Florida, and enough to have made Al Gore president. And don’t even get party insiders started on Minnesota – the state McCain carried by 2,500 votes. Minnesota had the distinction of voting blue more consistently than any other state in the country. That is no longer the case.

What all of this Monday morning political quarterbacking is missing, though, is any real mention of Gore’s opponent, the next president: John McCain. The discussion around Gore’s failings and missteps ignores the possibility that even though the election was close, John McCain may have in fact been the perfect nominee for Republicans. He was, in some ways, the anti-Clinton without the in-your-face Whitewater personality. Instead, he seemed to be perfectly suited for the 2000 campaign.

If the Gore campaign made a critical error, it was that they failed to see how Republican nominee John McCain, as opposed to their presumed opponent, George W. Bush, changed the landscape. Bush talked about morals and returning integrity to the White House. McCain threw these obligatory Republican talking points into his stump speech, but he contrasted with Clinton and the current atmosphere in very different ways. Bush was folksy and charming; McCain was comparatively stiff and awkward. Bush talked about education and changing conservatism. McCain talked about campaign finance reform and changing Washington. They always had different paths to the White House, different strategies for connecting with voters, and the Gore campaign seems to have missed this. So, too, did the American press that counted John McCain out.

In the wake of their victory, McCain’s staff has been generous with internal documents and candid on-background interviews explaining how they orchestrated their electoral victory. Voters liked Bill Clinton a lot, they found in focus groups. They liked that he was charming. Men even admitted they liked he cheated on Hillary when you took women out of the room. John McCain was never going to beat Bill Clinton in the let’s have a beer debate and frankly, voters didn’t really care to have a beer with McCain or with Al Gore. Instead, the McCain campaign found that voters were a little tired of Washington and they were looking to move on from the (at least perceived) corruption of the Clinton White House.

They responded well to McCain’s talk about campaign finance reform. When the Gore campaign started to mention the Keating Five scandal, the McCain campaign was ready. They had already found that voters responded well to the fact that McCain admitted wrongdoing and began focusing time on creating campaign finance laws that would prevent another Keating Five scandal. It was the kind of self-accountability they saw missing from the Clinton White House and Washington as a whole. Gore’s campaign quickly realized the attacks weren’t sticking and dropped them.

The debates also showed a contrast in personalities that helped McCain. He was humbler than Gore. He was soft-spoken, which voters actually responded well to. They liked that, for once, Washington didn’t seem to be yelling at them. McCain’s calming refrains of “my friend” and anecdotes from the trail allowed for voters to connect with him. Gore tried repeatedly to paint McCain as aloof – a strategy that may have worked with George Bush but failed with John McCain.

The McCain campaign also noticed early on that there were many paths to 270 electoral votes, and they wanted to leave as many of them open as possible. They engaged Bush shortly after the convention and he agreed to sign on as a top surrogate. He and his brother Jeb, the Florida governor, campaigned aggressively in Florida, sometimes joined by Bill Frist. They raised money aggressively in conjunction with the Republican National Committee so that they could expand staff and advertisements in as many states as possible. As McCain had learned from his win in New Hampshire, no state was too small to change the course of the election.

Small victories in Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin amounted to 37 electoral votes. They lost Missouri and Tennessee, but only by a hair, and they managed to win Florida, Ohio, and Nevada – three states in which Gore’s campaign invested heavily.

John McCain was undoubtedly built for the moment. His message resonated. His advisers knew how to play the map (or they at least guessed correctly). He parlayed a consistent underdog message throughout the campaign – even when he was out-polling Gore by single digits at various points. He never took his victory for granted, in fact, those closest to him say he never really believed he was going to win, not even after he won the nomination away from Bush. Instead, McCain was a humble soldier – doing his part to put up a good Republican showing so that Republicans could flip the White House in 2004.

Make no mistake, however, John McCain wanted the presidency. His ambivalence about victory was owed more to the fact that he refused to believe it was owed to him or that any person was entitled to the office. But John McCain fought hard to win enough votes to get there. After a lackluster second debate, McCain was furious with himself, isolating from his team for the rest of the evening until the next morning when he emerged determined to win back the narrative.

When concerns about money set in, McCain jumped on the phone and asked for money from everyone who needed to hear from him. “There was a point in October when John McCain was on the phone every time we got in the car. If he had a ten-minute drive, he called someone and told them he needed them to raise another $10,000 so we could expand our ad buy somewhere. He was determined to win, and if the campaign needed money, he raised it. If the campaign needed media exposure, he found a camera. If it needed a rallied-up base, he flew to a red state and energized them. And when it needed votes, he found a way to win them.”

It makes sense why so many people are looking at Vice President Al Gore and wondering what he did wrong to keep himself out of the Oval Office. He was the favorite – the presumed heir. Instead, though, the Democratic Party may be wise to instead turn its head to President-elect John McCain, examine him and his strategy, and ask themselves what he did right. After all, he’s the man about to become president.
 

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I did not find a McCain/Gore general election battle particularly compelling, so I spared us all from it, but I did want to articulate how McCain won

1) Because it is important and owed by me, the author, to you, the reader
2) Because I wanted to emphasize how I think his path differed from Bush's

I am going to post full election results later today or tomorrow and then I will be moving to a more narrative timeline format in the vain of my Passkey Down timeline in my signature
 
2000 Election Results

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Elections in the United States, 2000
United States Presidential Election, 2000

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United States Senate Elections, 2000 [Changes from OTL]

  • Nebraska: Don Stenberg (R) def. Ben Nelson (D) - Republican gain
  • Tennessee: Lamar Alexander* (R) def. Jeff Clark (D) - Republican hold
  • Washington: Sen. Slade Gorton (R) def. Maria Cantwell (D) - Republican hold
*after his nomination as vice president, Frist removed his name from the ballot in Tennessee. State Republicans chose Alexander to replace him.

Previous Senate composition: 54 Republicans, 46 Democrats
New Senate composition: 52 Republicans, 48 Democrats (D+2)

United States House Elections, 2000


Previous House composition: 223 Republicans, 212 Democrats*
New Senate composition: 226 Republicans**, 209 Democrats* (R+3)

*includes Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
**includes Rep. Virgil Goode (I-VA)
 
1. Taking the Reins

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Chapter 1

Taking the Reins

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Assembling a presidential administration is a lot of work. After the Republican National Convention, McCain named John Weaver, his chief strategist, to oversee the transition team. Weaver, of course, was working closely on the campaign and trying to steer it to victory in November. With McCain’s approval, Weaver appointed Kellyanne Conway, a Republican strategist who worked for Congressman Jack Kemp and Senator Fred Thompson, and was married to Weaver’s friend George Conway, as his Deputy Chair of the Transition and began outsourcing a number of his responsibilities.

In the 1990s, Kellyanne Conway gained attention in conservative circles for being a young female conservative, along with Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. She made rounds as a political pundit and demonstrated knowledge of the inner workings of Capitol Hill. Throughout the campaign, she oversaw the necessary vetting and led discussions about White House roles. She carefully curated a team of fellow young conservatives who could stand to influence a future President McCain’s administration. They met regularly, reviewed resumes, discussed big-picture strategy, and sat waiting for their chance to act.

On the Wednesday morning after his victory, John McCain gathered Vice President-elect Bill Frist, Conway, Weaver, campaign manager Rick Davis, strategist Mike Murphy, deputy campaign manager Roy Fletcher, and communications adviser Steve Schmidt for a discussion about the transition. The group had struggled to stay together, but McCain was adamant that instead of firing anyone, they needed to work on their differences. It was no secret that McCain often deferred to Weaver and Murphy’s judgement, a source of contention for Davis, but ultimately Davis put his feelings aside as McCain started winning primaries and it became clear he was running a winning campaign.

The meeting took several hours as they discussed top cabinet positions, legislative priorities, and some of the smaller cabinet roles. In his mind, McCain had formulated a lot of his top cabinet positions. He wanted his friend and trusted Senate colleague Joe Lieberman at the State Department. Conway had feared that this might happen but quickly realized it was going to be difficult to steer McCain away from this idea.

Conway argued that it was going to inflame the right. The base of party was already skeptical of the president, and they needed cabinet choices that reassured them the president took their concerns seriously. McCain was aware of that and so, too, were Weaver and Murphy who had a number of ideas in mind to placate the base. First, he was going to name his friend and conservative darling Lindsey Graham to be the next U.S. Attorney General. Next, he had, at Weaver’s urging, decided on Senator Phil Gramm of Texas as his Secretary of Treasury. The third conservative-pleasing appointment was Gary Bauer as the U.S. Ambassador to Israel.


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McCain wanted Colin Powell at the Defense Department, but federal statute prevented Powell from serving as he had not been retired from service for long enough. On McCain’s behalf, Frist met with Republican Senate leadership and negotiated an agreement to pass a resolution waiving the statute so Powell could be confirmed. While Powell had privately hoped for the State Department, he agreed to serve McCain as Secretary of Defense.

McCain’s cabinet was not without controversy. Known as a maverick who enjoyed teasing Washington norms, the president-elect wanted to name a bold choice to be his Secretary of Health & Human Services. During the Clinton health care debate in the early 1990s, Republican senator Jim Jeffords had appeared mildly supportive of Clinton’s plan and tried to work with First Lady Hillary Clinton to pass some kind of health care reform. In the process, Jeffords made enemies on the right. Now, McCain wanted to appoint him as Secretary of Health & Human Services.

Conway was irate. At no point had McCain given any indication that Jeffords would enter the cabinet. Even Murphy and Weaver wanted to pour cold water on the idea, but McCain met privately with his incoming vice president to discuss health care policy. On the trail, McCain had learned that health care was a top issue on voters’ minds. Republicans had stolen the issue away from Democrats in the 1990’s. McCain wanted to cement that gain in the 2000’s and believed that Jeffords would be able to orchestrate some kind of middle ground to health care that could help Republicans increase their numbers in Congress and retain the presidency for generations to come.

Frist was skeptical but agreed that the plan could work if the president had to make a few concessions. First, he had to keep Conway on board as an adviser to the president on domestic policy. She had credibility with the right and could keep Jeffords in check. Second, Frist wanted to be a part of any health care legislation as well. He was more trusted on the right than anyone else in the upper echelons of the administration. His presence would be necessary for political reasons and helpful given his expertise in the area. McCain agreed.

Republicans were outraged by McCain’s selection, but Jeffords was an incumbent senator who had many friends on both sides of the aisle. Commentators on Fox News and talk radio suggested it was reason enough to believe McCain had sold them out. Who defended the president? His new adviser on domestic policy, Kellyanne Conway, who made the rounds and chatted with old friends and former colleagues about all of the great work McCain had in store. “Look,” she’d tell them, “I’m in the administration. I am working on health care policy every single day. Do you really think I am going to sign off on anything that resembles HillaryCare?” Conway’s defense worked and the president-elect realized she was going to be a necessary component of his administration.

The Lieberman and Jeffords nominations had consequences on the balance of power in the Senate. Both Connecticut and Vermont required special elections. In Vermont, Governor Howard Dean appointed his Lieutenant Governor, Doug Racine. In late March, State Treasurer Jim Douglas defeated Racine by 4.5%, flipping the seat back into Republican hands. Republican governor John Rowland was barred by state law from making an appointment in Connecticut. A special election to replace Lieberman was scheduled for May. Republicans nominated President McCain’s friend Congressman Chris Shays, who narrowly defeated Democratic nominee Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. While Blumenthal had been the favorite, low-turnout and heavy financial investment from the Republicans (as well as McCain’s relative popularity) helped Shays eek it out.


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On January 20, 2001, John McCain became the first president inaugurated in the new millennium. His remarks that day touched on the history of the moment as well as the future ahead. “The time has come for this country to unite. To come together. So here I am, reaching out to any willing patriot who is ready to fight for a Washington that works for them - who is ready to fight for a more honest and more transparent government. For every patriot who is ready to join in our common purpose. This is our time to come together, my friends,” the new president said. There was no “Ask not” moment, but McCain did his level best to ensure every American felt they would be listened to in his administration.

Within the first few days of his administration, McCain gathered advisers to discuss what issues they should prioritize. McCain knew his first legislative action had to relate to campaign finance reform. He called in Republicans and Democrats who had talked about the issue in the past in order to craft legislation. Among those brought to the White House were Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, a Republican, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a Democrat, and Representative Chris Shays of Connecticut, a Republican, and Representative Marty Meehan, a Democrat.

The consensus was that the group should build off the proposal that failed in 1998 and work forward from there. Quickly, however, an ambitious Republican senator who was seeking to rise in the leadership made clear that he intended to fight the president, and so began the years-long conflict between the president and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell.
 
I think, if the WTC attacks are butterflied, McCain would probably see a more bullish relationship with China as tensions were growing at this time. There was also Enron which'll hit in 2001, I believe. Had some connections with the Bush Administration that might be absent here.

Good start to the TL and seems like some problems are on the horizon already. Should be fun.
 

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President John McCain's Cabinet

Vice President: Bill Frist
Secretary of State: Joe Lieberman
Secretary of Treasury: Phil Gramm
Secretary of Defense: Colin Powell
Attorney General: Lindsey Graham
Secretary of the Interior: Gale Norton
Secretary of Agriculture: Ann Veneman
Secretary of Commerce: Peter King
Secretary of Labor: Elaine Chao
Secretary of Health & Human Services: Jim Jeffords
Secretary of Education: Lisa Keegan
Secretary of Housing & Urban Development: Skip Rimsza
Secretary of Transportation: Spencer Abraham
Secretary of Energy: John Kasich
Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Anthony Principi

White House Chief of Staff: Mike Murphy
Administrator of the EPA: Christine Todd Whitman
Director of the Office of Management and Budget: Mitch Daniels

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: Elizabeth Dole
 
2. Straight Talk

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Donor
Chapter 2

Straight Talk

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President John McCain joins senators supporting his campaign finance reform bill at a press conference in January 2001.
Each election meant fewer and fewer Republicans had experienced being in the Senate minority. Mitch McConnell was one of them, and in those formative years of his career, he vowed to take control of the Senate Republican Caucus and keep it in a permanent majority. The path was slow, but he was determined and able. With the election of John McCain as president, McConnell saw an opening – a chance to become the conservative conscience of the party and give voice to the Republican establishment who feared McCain was too eager to pass legislation, like campaign finance reform, that hurt Republicans from an electoral standpoint. Privately, some Senate Republicans harbored the same concerns McConnell did. Their donors didn’t like a lot of the new president’s campaign finance reform proposal. Many were concerned their influence would diminish. Others had ideological objections, claiming violations of the First Amendment. Some didn’t understand why McCain’s legislation was something other than a tax cut for them.

McConnell began wining and dining Republican donors at all of the classic fundraiser locales in the District. “I am not going to let the president take away your speech,” he told them at dinners that cost $5,000 to get into. “I am very worried, as you are, that the Republican Party is moving away from its support for the Constitution. This isn’t about buying access, it is about protecting speech. Now, you all know that Elaine is in the administration. She says that McCain is obsessed – almost literally singularly obsessed – with getting this bill passed.” He chuckled, “I didn’t expect to kill the president’s first legislative effort, but my God – give me the sword!”

At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the tone towards the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2001 was very different. The president’s team was optimistic about passage. The legislation included several major provisions. It prohibited the national political party committees from receiving or using soft money in federal elections. It also prohibited state and local political parties as well as federal candidates from using soft money for federal election activities. Many officeholders in Washington and candidates were using soft money contributions to get around the limits that already existed in campaign finance law. President McCain was determined to stop this and ensure fairer elections.

In order to get these provisions into the bill, skeptical Republicans were demanding that the McCain administration raise the individual contribution limits. McCain was willing to do it, but he wanted it done as minimally as possible. The existing limit was $1,000 per candidate per election. McConnell and others on the right were pushing for $5,000. McCain – and many of the Congressional Democrats – refused. During the back-and-forth, the president came to rely on Senator Fred Thompson, who was well-respected across the spectrum of the Republican Party. As a former counsel during Watergate, Thompson had seen political corruption up close, and he was willing to stick out his neck to help the new president tackle the systemic problems in Washington.

Thompson worked hard to get Republicans on board with the president’s vision, but he quickly realized that McConnell was doing everything he could to stonewall McCain’s agenda. Thompson would show up to meet with legislators and they’d tell him McConnell had already convinced them to oppose the legislation. McCain was furious.

“You’re telling me that some jackass in my own party is killing this thing?!” he yelled. He turned to Murphy and Weaver for advice. They were lost. It was the middle of February. The president had yet to address a joint session of Congress yet, and he was already facing heat within his own party. Steve Schmidt suggested that the White House let McCain be McCain.

“We make campaign finance reform the center of the speech. We ask Washington to do the right thing. Then, we go around the country, and we let the American people know they’re not and get them to call the offices. John McCain is the f*cking president, let’s act like it! We have the advantage, not Mitch McConnell,” Schmidt argued. McCain agreed. Mark Salter, the president’s chief speechwriter, got to work with re-writing the address a bit to have an added emphasis on campaign finance reform. Then, he prepared some language for a new stump speech focused on pressuring Washington into passing the bill.


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President John McCain and his staff discuss strategy relating to passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act.

On February 27, 2001, President John McCain made the drive down Pennsylvania Avenue to address a joint session of the 107th Congress. Behind him were Vice President Bill Frist and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. In front of him were 535 lawmakers who would determine the success of his presidency. After the usual niceties and openings, McCain turned to the topic on everyone’s mind: “Most of you know that I staked my campaign on reforming Washington. I think it’s important to change the culture in this town. Right now, lobbyists and corporate special interests have a stranglehold on the legislative process, and we’re seeing that happen today. I am committed to passing campaign finance reform in my first year in office, and I need you to be with me. I need you stand with me in favor of ending soft money contributions. I need you stand with me in favor of limiting the amount of money spent by outside groups with no accountability. I need you to fight alongside me and give our democracy back to the American people!”

The next day, McCain took Senators Thompson and Feingold and flew to Louisville, Kentucky for a kickoff rally of the presidential iteration of the “Straight Talk Express.” McCain was at his best. “You know what makes a loud noise when it lands in your backyard?” he asked Murphy. “Air Force One.” Everyone laughed.

“Oh, I think McConnell will hear ya today, Mr. President,” said Thompson.

“My friends, I want to be honest with you. I want to be straight with you,” the president told the crowd in Louisville. “Your senator, Mitch McConnell, is doing everything he can to stop this legislation. I need you to be with me! I need you to call his office. I need you to write him a letter. I need you to tell Mitch McConnell that you want soft money out of our elections! And when you’ve done that, I can call up Trent Lott and I can get this bill passed, but I need you to do everything you can to take your democracy back. I am fighting for you, but I need you to fight with me!”

After Louisville, McCain carried on, inviting supportive home state legislators to join him at each stop. He went to Pennsylvania and Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri, Washington and Oregon. While the president crisscrossed the country, Vice President Frist and the bill’s sponsors sat for every interview they could. 60 Minutes did a report on the legislation. Kellyanne Conway went and made an argument on Fox News and on talk radio, sparring with Rush Limbaugh. All guns were firing.


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Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee became the lead Republican proponent of the legislation in McCain's absence from the Senate.

McConnell did not take the president’s direct assault on him well. His phone lines were jammed with calls about the bill. Most were not from Kentucky, but many were. Few were on his side, and the overwhelming majority of the calls favored the president. He wasn’t the only one. Trent Lott, the Senate Majority Leader, and Don Nickles, the Senate Majority Whip, said their offices were over-run with calls. Senators who were perceived to be on the fence, like Thad Cochran in Mississippi, Susan Collins in Maine, Judd Gregg in New Hampshire, Chuck Hagel in Nebraska, Dick Lugar in Indiana, and George Voinovich in Ohio said their phones were basically unusable.

With the exception of McConnell, the White House did its due diligence to make sure it didn’t anger Republicans in the process. In Ohio, for example, the team reached out to Senators DeWine and Voinovich and asked if they wanted to join. DeWine declined, but Voinovich said he would go if they reformatted from a rally to a town hall. The president’s team loved the idea and accommodated the senator’s request. On the plane between stops, the president checked-in with senators and congressmen who needed another push.

The strategy was working. Support for the legislation was growing and the public was intently focused on the bill. Having Vice President Frist convert to supporting the legislation was also helping win over conservative members of Congress. Frist did his own lobbying. He admitted there was a lot of the bill that he didn’t like. When Don Nickles, the number two in Republican senate leadership, asked Frist how he could flip-flop, Frist said it was easy. “Look, Don. John McCain is president, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the people love him. That’s why your office is getting slammed with calls. You want to be with him on this, because he’s going to remember who was. And he’s going to have the power to make their lives easy or hard. Don’t screw around with us on this. Plus, if we get his campaign finance reform passed, he’s going to work with us on what we want – tax cuts, deregulation. The guy’s not a liberal by any means, he just cares about this issue. Let’s give it to him.”

At the end of March, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles announced that he was coming out in favor of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act. It gave cover to a number of on-the-fence Republicans, and the numbers began to shift in the president’s favor. With Nickles on board, the votes in the Senate were there as long as everyone could agree on the language. The whip count had one Democrat, Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, as a Nay vote. The rest were on board. That gave the White House 47 out of 99 (Lieberman’s seat remained vacant). There were now 17 Republicans on board: Alexander, Chafee, Cochran, Collins, Domenici, Douglas (of Vermont), Fitzgerald, Hagel, Kolbe (of Arizona), Kyl, Lugar, Nickles, Snowe, Specter, Thompson, Voinovich, and Warner. That meant 64 voters were on the table. Now, the staffs needed to get together and agree on the language.


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President McCain campaigned extensively for Congressman Chris Shays during the special election for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut.

One of the major sticking points was the limit on contributions. The higher it got, the more comfortable Republicans were with voting for it and the antsier Democrats got. The president was trying to get as much as he could, but he also wanted to win with a comfortable number of Republican votes. He was able to raise limits only to $1,500 per candidate per election, $7,500 per state or local party committee per election, and $25,000 per national committee per year. However, the conservative members of the House were holding firm on striking the aggregate contribution limit, which stated that individuals could only contribute a total of $25,000 per year. The president’s team was comfortable raising it to $80,000 to reflect the increase in limits to campaigns, but he was unwilling to compromise on striking it. Besides, striking the limit altogether would lead to the majority of Democratic votes walking away.

McCain lost a few House Republicans, but he was able to keep most of them by agreeing to an aggregate limit of $88,000 indexed to inflation. He had to concede to all limits being indexed. Still, the president felt the legislation was strong. In addition to the new contribution limits, it also prohibited soft money contributions and reformed issue advertisements as electioneering communications. Some felt that the legislation would see inevitable legal challenges, but McCain thought it was worth it. He was staking his legacy on campaign finance reform and he intended to pass it.

The legislation passed the House of Representatives with 243 votes, the majority of which were from Democrats, and 65 votes in the Senate, the majority of which were also Democrats. By the time the legislation came to a vote in the Senate, Chris Shays of Connecticut had won his election and been seated, providing the 18th Republican vote for passage. After 22 public appearances in almost as many states, countless calls to lawmakers, and regular appearances on the news, President McCain was prepared to sign his signature legislative achievement in June of 2001.

Flanked by lawmakers of both parties, McCain affixed his signature to the legislation that would be forever known as “McCain’s Law” by friends of the president and “Thompson-Feingold” by friends of Congress. It was a beautiful outdoor signing ceremony in the Rose Garden. From his office in Austin, Texas Governor George Bush fired off a quick email to Mitch McConnell, “How’s the new guy working out?”
 
We’ll see what’s coming in September and I get the feeling McCain is not done with McConnell yet. You’re gonna need to force these goons to behave, President McCain
 
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