06/06/2008 07:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rebranding Republicans: McCain's Conundrum

While Barack Obama is at last able to claim the Democratic nomination, John McCain has had the luxury of months to work on "rebranding" a Republican Party grown very tarnished due to the economic downturn and the deep unpopularity of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. But a day spent recently following McCain around California points up how difficult a task he has in store. And how short he remains of the mark.

McCain's conundrum was obvious even before his defensive attempt this week to counter-program Obama's victory speech, in which he protested a bit too much about how different he is from Bush even as his campaign was confirming that he is now in line with the president in agreeing that surveillance of international phone calls and e-mails need not be approved by the secret FISA court, which has routinely rubber-stamped requests.

In a sense, it shouldn't be hard for McCain. He's a famous man, a famous war hero, a famous maverick. He has his own image. He ran against Bush, and was savaged by him. He's famously bucked the party line. But it may be one thing to be an insurgent in an unpopular party, as he was in 2000. It may be quite another to be its nominee.

I hooked up on the road with McCain late last month in California's glitzy Silicon Valley and rural Central Valley. Far from departing from Republican orthodoxy, McCain, who did not seem a happy warrior, mostly embraced it.

He was joined at an economic roundtable in Silicon Valley by several tech titans, and the politician who succeeded in rebranding his own Republicanism, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was in California, with Schwarzenegger's backing, where McCain essentially won the Republican nomination, knocking out Mitt Romney. It was in California where Schwarzenegger, after veering disastrously to the right in a 2005 special election, recast himself as a global warming-fighting/infrastructure-building centrist and easily sloughed off Democratic attempts to make him out to be a Bush clone.

But in his California trip, McCain hewed pretty heavily to the party line, even as he said he aims to make a real run at the state in which Bush and the Republican brand are in the dumpster. In Silicon Valley, the Vietnam War hero talked up the need to cut greenhouse gases, his hoped-for silver bullet talisman demonstrating his non-Bushieness. But he also talked up Bushonomics: Lower corporate taxes, disdain for the capital gains tax, reduced regulation. And he attacked Obama for wanting to "unilaterally renegotiate NAFTA." The same thing his roundtable moderator and national co-chair, billionaire former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, said. Some Republicans, fearful that the governorship will go back to the Democrats after the term-limited Schwarzenegger departs at the end of 2010, look to this former Romney national finance co-chair to make a run.

But these very positions were contradicted by a new poll showing most voters in very sharp disagreement. And certainly voters in industrial swing states mistrust this sort of free trade dogma.

The most striking moment of the roundtable came from Schwarzenegger. He's come to emphasize the climate change issue so much that he's lionized by many environmentalists and magazine covers for his stance, notwithstanding all his jet and SUV travel, for which he must have purchased the equivalent of a small rain forest in carbon offsets. Schwarzenegger, who McCain advisors say is a role model for rebranding, broke through the corporate decorum of the event by saying that government has to intervene to force Detroit to make clean new vehicles. "They have a billboard there attacking me, saying 'Schwarzenegger to Detroit: Drop Dead.' I say Schwarzenegger to Detroit, get off your butt!" This got the biggest burst of applause of anything said during the session, from the crowd of Silicon Valley types and mostly moderate Republicans in the audience.

And here we see the core of McCain's problem. Schwarzenegger pitched his electoral resurrection almost entirely around an appeal to independents and moderate voters. He mostly ignored the noisy leadership of the Republican base, which came to loathe him, not that he seems to care. (And he never set foot near George W. Bush.) But in the end, they had nowhere else to go.

McCain has a similar situation, as his high command knows. A Republican base increasingly out of step with mainstream thinking. A path to victory that requires the ability to appeal to the burgeoning ranks of independents through a creative (not split the difference) centrism.

But despite his reputation as a maverick, and his evident heroism in the Navy, he's being much less bold. He runs the risk of fading into the woodwork in comparison to the charismatic Obama.

In a speech that afternoon before a rally in the Central Valley town of Stockton, McCain played the Iraq and Iran cards, before a crowd of 500 or so of the party faithful. With a crowd revved up by thunderous rock music and the even more thunderous sound of a group of motorcyclists revving their engines way past the redline, McCain played the patriotism card in much the way that Bush and Karl Rove would recommend, saying that Obama wants to "surrender in Iraq."

He seemed to have a sense of personal pique about Obama, who was criticizing him for voting against the new GI bill carried by McCain's old friend Jim Webb. He described Obama as "a very young man and a very inexperienced man," unqualified to even venture an opinion on veterans affairs "since he never served" and certainly not trustworthy enough to defend America.

McCain had already chosen, fatefully, to endorse Bush's remarks in Israel widely viewed as casting the "appeasement" label on Obama's willingness to talk with hostile nations. McCain took the bait and defended Bush from the furious counter-attack mounted against him from across the Democratic Party. "I think it is an unacceptable position," said McCain, "and shows that Senator Obama does not have the knowledge, the experience, the background to make the kind of judgments that are necessary to preserve this nation's security."

Ironically, McCain had just prior to that given a better speech than Tuesday night's rather awkward effort in which he asserted his independence from Bush and sketched out a vision of America at the end of his first term as president. Among other things, McCain -- seeking to get the "100 years war" trope out of circulation -- made clear his intent to withdraw most US forces from Iraq by January 2013. Remaining forces are out of the business of direct combat. Victory is defined as a less bad situation. But not anywhere near the pipe dreams of the war's original architects.

Which, of course, will be very hard to pull off without engaging Iran, perhaps the key power broker in Iraq.

He talked up the climate change issue and then decried "a hyperpartisanship that treats every serious challenge facing us as an opportunity to trade insults, disparage each other's motives, and fight about the next election."

But that's what McCain is doing now, disparaging motives and tossing insults. And even on climate change, he has a problem. For, while he has done some things in the field, he has opposed various efforts to promote renewable energy sources through green tech and impose higher fuel efficiency standards. Without a strong commitment to those efforts, the cap & trade program he has in mind for greenhouse gases won't be enough.

His ally Schwarzenegger has been much bolder in seizing the independent mantle, accelerating state requirements for utilities to include renewables in their energy mix and, working with former Governor-turned-Attorney General Jerry Brown, fighting the auto industry and the Bush Administration in court to get cleaner and more efficient cars.

In my talks with McCain advisors, they are very well aware that this is a very rough year for Republicans. Bush has a near record low approval rating. Fully 80% of voters think America is on the wrong track. Republicans have lost three straight special elections in seemingly safe congressional districts. Virginia Congressman Tom Davis, former National Republican Campaign Committee chairman, says that Bush is simply "radioactive."

The Republican brand is battered. The Democratic brand is significantly more popular. And independents are on the rise.

In this environment, a strategy focused principally on mobilizing the base, as in the 2000 and 2004 elections, will fail. Even if Rev. Wright is conveniently ranting his infamous greatest hits 24/7 on all media outlets and all the other Obama boogie men -- Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko, Rashid Khalidi -- become household names. That doesn't mean these associations won't be issues. It does mean they won't be as determinative as many have it in their perfervid imaginings.

McCain has to hold on to a declining base and at the same time appeal to moderates and independents.

Why isn't McCain bolder in demonstrating his independence from Bush -- with whom he voted 95% of the time last year -- and breaking free from obviously unpopular partisan orthodoxy?

Does he really need Bush that badly to raise money? One key difference between McCain and Schwarzenegger is that the governor didn't need any help in that department.

Is he afraid to offend the Talk Radio Wing of the Republican Party, which he actually defeated in the Republican primaries?

Does he believe that if he strikes out on a more independent course that core Republicans voters will sit on their hands and allow a young liberal black man to become the next President of the United States?

Or is he really, with a few signal exceptions, much more a part of that increasingly unpopular Republican orthodoxy than he would like to admit?

He doesn't have much longer to come up with the right answers, if he can.