WASHINGTON The good news for Republicans is that they have a big head start in the Fiesta of Forced Smiles the post-primary, preconvention phase of the presidential campaign in which former opponents and party elders pledge their support for the presumptive nominee in a photogenic show of unity.
The bad news is that the likely nominee, John McCain, intends to run on positions that most voters reject.
This inconvenient fact was evident Monday in George H. W. Bush's gracious endorsement speech. The former president called McCain a worthy standard-bearer for the party's "conservative values" never mind that the elder Bush's credentials as a true "movement" conservative were often questioned and he gently suggested it was time for Mike Huckabee, who technically remains in the race, to wake up and smell the coffee.
I say that Huckabee is only technically a candidate because jetting off to the Cayman Islands to give a paid speech is not generally considered the best way to win the Wisconsin primary. This is an odd political year, but not that odd.
Poppy Bush's announcement of support for McCain at least seemed heartfelt as opposed to Mitt Romney's backing for his bitter rival, which was dutiful and correct. Are Republicans supposed to forget the startlingly un-Republican way the two men snarled at each other throughout the primary contests? Romney, you will recall, accused McCain of supporting higher taxes and "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants; McCain painted Romney as a chameleon who had "changed positions on literally every major issue."
In his endorsement, Romney said that "in the thick of a fight, it's easy to lose sight of your opponent's finer qualities." That translates roughly as: "I'm smiling through gritted teeth and doing what I have to do, because I want to be the Republican nominee next time around."
President Bush, whose errors and failures cast a pall over McCain's presidential bid, was much more genuine in offering support for a man with whom he has clashed repeatedly in the past. For the president, obviously, political ambition is moot. More than party unity is at stake: McCain is the last candidate standing who shares the Decider's vision of the Iraq war as an open-ended struggle, still requiring a massive deployment of American military forces that would eventually lead to some sort of meaningful strategic "victory" for the United States.
The Decider is eager to help McCain paint Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as defeatists, rather than realists (which they are) who recognize that the Iraq invasion was a historic blunder, that the military achievements of Bush's troop surge have served only to partially mitigate the damage done to U.S. national interests by the war, and that a permanent U.S. occupation of Iraq which is, essentially, the Bush-McCain policy will harm our nation's security rather than enhance it.
The Democratic candidates are impolite enough to point out that the losses suffered by al-Qaida in Iraq, which Bush and McCain love to cite, are really the vanquishing of a foe that could never have existed without the U.S. invasion. The Democrats also recognize that while U.S. forces are bogged down in Iraq, al-Qaida is regrouping in Pakistan and plotting new attacks. They learned this from the Bush administration's own intelligence estimates.
The war is only one issue on which McCain, as the all-but-certain Republican nominee, is out of step with the voters. Health care is another: While Clinton and Obama have offered far-reaching proposals to make health insurance available to millions of uninsured Americans, Republicans aren't offering so much as a bandage.
Or take the economy, which at present is the biggest issue in the campaign (and which, McCain famously said, he doesn't really understand that well). The Democrats have tapped into the widespread discomfort and insecurity that polls indicate many Americans feel, while McCain and the Republicans can only talk about more tax cuts and the eternal glory of free and unfettered markets.
Message: We don't care.
Huckabee, no doubt refreshed from his sojourn in the Caymans, was back on the campaign trail in Wisconsin on Monday. He vows to continue at least through Texas on March 4, but the writing has been on the wall for some time. If I were a Republican poobah and wanted to hustle him out of the race more quickly, I'd find a billionaire to bankroll a new syndicated talk show: "Huckabee!" One thing he has proved is that he's a master of the form, maybe even good enough to go toe-to-toe with Oprah Winfrey.McCain, meanwhile, will be locked in his own battle against history and the public mood.
Eugene Robinson's e-mail address is [email protected].