Losing presidential campaigns always prompt criticism and “what if’s” but most savvy observers were surprised that Senator John McCain and his creative team kept it as close as they did. John McCain didn’t come away looking like a loser. He played a remarkable game with very bad cards.
I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs that Senator McCain had to have had a little conversation with himself. He probably locked himself in a bathroom and looked in the mirror and said, “Buddy, the economy is in shambles, the president’s approval rating is in the toilet, the GOP is a damaged brand. You cannot run a traditional campaign. You have to take big risks.” And he certainly did and almost all of them paid off, even if the inevitable happened anyway.
Now, we are learning little bits and pieces of what went wrong for the GOP. And especially about how badly they were alienated from their evangelical base and needed Sarah Palin to bring it together.
Why Pat Robertson endorsed Rudolph Giuliani?
First, the unexplainable Pat Robertson endorsement of the Mayor. Turns out to be very simple. Giuliani and one other early candidate were the only ones who showed any interest in Roberson’s pet Regency University. When the hated New York Times published a story saying that Robertson would never endorse Giuliani, that sealed it. It turns out that Mike Huckabee, who recently expressed exasperation at the fickle evangelical religious leaders, who should have coalesced behind his candidacy, could have had the endorsement too. He just had to fly in and pick it up.
McCain – EST Connection?
What was causing such a drag on the John McCain campaign was more than his caustic remarks of 2000, when he famously lashed out at evangelical leaders as “agents of intolerance.” It turns out that the Senator’s religious journey may have been more complicated than many first surmised. And by 2008 rumors were rife that the Senator had once been involved in EST in California, and the concern was that the experience may have influenced his spiritual evolution.
EST or Erhard Seminars Training were popular in the 1970’s and represented an intensive 60 hour, two weekend course that urged participants to experience a personal transformation. Laced with elements of Zen Buddhism, Werner Erhard led flamboyant, marathon sessions which became famous for restricting food, talking, writing, bathroom breaks or conversations with friends for 15 hour periods. Participants were sometimes reduced to urinating and vomiting publicly during the sessions all supposedly worth the humiliation if a participant could arrive at an awareness of “self.” It is not clear to what degree, if any, that the Senator participated. But rumors were rife. And they came from credible and prominent Arizona sources.
In 1991, Cindy McCain joined the North Phoenix Baptist Church, then pastored by Rev. Richard Jackson, a leader of the moderate wing of the Southern Baptists Convention. A source close to Jackson told me how the pastor “led Mrs. McCain to Christ” and urged her to have her husband join her in a Baptism ceremony but the Senator firmly declined. The source says that the Senator, baptized an Episcopalian, joined his wife in visiting religious services at the North Phoenix Baptist Church beginning in 1991. The church is now pastored by the Rev. Dan Yeary, also a leader in the moderate wing of the SBC.
The McCains have visited other Arizona congregations on special occasions, such as, Fourth of July programs at the First Assemblies of God, pastored by the Rev. Tommy Barnett.
McCain – Dobson standoff
In May, 2008, James Dobson invited Senator McCain to Colorado Springs to be a guest on his radio show. It was an olive branch from Dobson who had announced earlier in the primary season he would not, in any circumstances, support McCain if he were the eventual GOP nominee.
But May was not a good month for politicians and preachers. Senator Barack Obama was still reeling from controversies with his pastor, the Rev. Wright. So Senator McCain politely turned down Dobson’s invitation. Later, in June, on a swing through Denver, McCain invited Dobson to meet him there instead. Dobson demurred. Neither man budged.
During this period a prominent McCain staffer told me that the Senator privately was saying, “I’ll be damned if go down there,” referring to the pilgrimage to Colorado Springs.
McCain and Dobson eventually met but the estrangement between the Senator’s presidential campaign and the evangelical base was severe.
In July, 2008, the Associated Press and TIME magazine reported on a private summit of evangelical leaders in Denver. According to their reports, the evangelical leaders had coalesced behind Republican candidate John McCain. But in fact, I was at this very private meeting, and there were some very lively exchanges with some of the more savvy leaders warning the evangelicals that they should not give away the store without getting anything in return.
Ken Connor, past president of the Family Research Council, urged attendees at the private meeting not to automatically endorse McCain. And a former congressman, meeting with leaders afterward, warned that those calling for unconditional, unreciprocated support of McCain were extremely naïve. Another evangelical congressman said the McCain supporters in Denver had reduced the work of three decades to “amateur night.”
So the choice of Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate was a stunning and immediate solution to a fissure much deeper than the public or the media guessed. She was a woman governor, with an 80% approval rating in her home state, and a maverick politician in the McCain mold. But she was more. She had been raised in the evangelical Christian tradition and knew all the buttons to push. The decision sealed the deal and all concerns from conservative Christians faded immediately.
What the McCain campaign had not counted on was the virulent evangelical backlash that attends any public figure from that despised culture. Momentarily stunned by the Palin choice, the media regrouped, gathered itself and went on the attack. They may just get another shot at her in 2012.
More later, as it keep unraveling.