When it first became clear that, despite insurmountable odds, John McCain would be the Republican nominee, most saw a number of advantages for the senator. While Obama and Clinton continued in battle, McCain would have time to court his base, develop a national campaign strategy, and appear presidential, traveling overseas whenever possible.
The first few weeks of that plan, however, have not gone accordingly. While the Democratic race continues to dominate headlines and news cycles, Senator McCain's presence in the media has been limited to five subjects: the weary road he must walk to unify the rightwing of his party behind him; the surprising difficulty with which he has mustered victories against Mike Huckabee, despite his nomination being assured; that he has a temper, often using profane language in Senate chambers; that the lobbyists running his campaign actually do business on the Straight Talk Express; and most recently, that he may have used his chairmanship to do favors for an attractive, blonde lobbyist.
For McCain, the storm is fast approaching.
The Senator has also encountered another problem, one that speaks to a steeper obstacle and magnifies the core of his weakness: despite objections from the Federal Election Commission, McCain is withdrawing from the public matching funds program.
By December of 2007, John McCain had already received a $3 million bank loan to finance his floundering campaign. When he returned to the bank for another $1 million, he needed collateral. Having already taken out a life insurance policy to secure the first loan, McCain secured the second with a pledge to accept federal matching funds, and to stay in the race long enough to receive them. Entering the matching funds system meant accepting a spending cap in exchange for public money.
But primary matching funds is truly a terrible system. The cap is woefully low - this year about $50 million - putting any candidate who accepts it at an enormous financial disadvantage. And because the primary doesn't legally end until the nominating convention, the money must last beyond beating one's opponent. It must last until September.
These considerations, however stark, were risks McCain had to take in December. Already deep in the red, McCain pledged to accept matching funds, almost immediately receiving benefits. His name was automatically placed on a number of state ballots, a process that would otherwise have required signatures.
Now that he is the presumptive nominee, he is determined to renege on his pledge to the federal government, despite having already benefited. By now he has likely exceeded the $50 million spending cap; if held to his commitment, he would be unable to spend another dollar before his nomination. Complicating matters, the FEC is requiring McCain to get approval from its six member body to withdraw, an impossibility given four vacancies on the commission - a lack of quorum with no end in sight. McCain has said he doesn't need FEC permission to exit the system, while the DNC has filed formal complaint to ensure he cannot.
Ultimately, McCain will refuse matching funds, regardless of the FEC's proclamations. Doing otherwise would be tantamount to conceding the election. But he will not do so without consequence. The coming days will wound him and those wounds will surely fester.
Senator McCain has built his narrative, brick by brick, on his honesty and integrity. But in the wake of his campaign finance flap, as that façade begins to crumble, he must confront a two front war. To independents and moderates, he will have to reestablish his credibility as an honest advocate for clean government, his stance on campaign finance growing wobbly by the minute. Doing so will no doubt infuriate those on the right, where opponents to campaign finance reform are among those most reluctant to back the Senator.
McCain's failure to unify his party during the primary will carry enormous implications, beginning here. His maverick persona, embraced by the center, is deeply despised by his base. When speaking to moderates, he will alienate the right. When speaking to the right, moderates will grow weary. For McCain, whenever an issue emerges that divides those constituencies, his hands will surely be tied. Unable to fight on two fronts, his army stretched thin, the campaign will falter, then fail.