McCain, Inc.?

Some 30 invited corporate representatives and other lobbyists gathered at the Phoenix Park Hotel on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning to hear two senior mainstream Republican senators pitch the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain. They were selling him to establishment Republicans as the establishment’s candidate. Nothing could be further from McCain’s guerrilla-style presidential run in 2000 that nearly stopped George W. Bush.

Invitations to Tuesday’s event were sent by Trent Lott, the newly elected Senate minority whip. Over coffee, Lott and Sen. Pat Roberts pushed McCain, though neither previously was seen as a McCainiac. They were not for McCain in 2000, and neither were the assembled party activists.

It is beginning to look like “McCain, Inc.” — that is, party regulars, corporate officials and Washington lawyers and lobbyists moving toward John McCain, the man it feared and loathed eight years ago. The GOP, abhorring competition and detesting surprises, likes to establish its presidential nominee well in advance.

I first appreciated this in 1996 when Robert J. Dole’s candidacy was dying after he barely won in Iowa and lost New Hampshire, Arizona and Delaware. He then won eight out of eight primaries on a single Tuesday. When I asked a Dole adviser how this happened, he said it was “Dole, Inc.” repelling outsiders seeking the nomination, Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan.

Viewing Republican presidential campaigns through this lens finds the corporate party selecting one candidate — and invariably nominating him. It has nothing to do with ideology. After the establishment fiercely opposed Ronald Reagan as an extremist in 1976, he became “Reagan, Inc.” in 1980. The most vivid instance was the coalition’s early embrace for 2000 of “George W. Bush, Inc.,” though he had little to commend him apart from his name.

In 2000, only two senators endorsed McCain: Jon Kyl, his fellow Arizonan acting out of courtesy, and maverick Nebraskan Chuck Hagel. Many at Tuesday’s coffee were surprised that the e-mail inviting them came from Lott, describing his “respect” for McCain as “unparalleled.” It was no sudden impulse. McCain a year ago went to Lott seeking support, and Lott then made his commitment. The major reason, Lott told me, was “electability.” (McCain campaigned aggressively for Lott last month in his post-election victory for whip over Sen. Lamar Alexander.)

A second surprise at the coffee hour was the appearance at Lott’s side of Roberts, even though his fellow Kansas senator, Sam Brownback, also is running for president. Roberts noted that in his Tuesday remarks, but asserted McCain is the right man in the right place at the right time. Lott said much the same thing, while conceding policy disagreements with McCain (notably global warming).

Veteran Republican operative Rick Davis, a longtime McCain campaign aide, ended the meeting by urging the insiders to get in on the ground floor with McCain. He passed out a red folder containing a money solicitation ($2,100 per individual, $4,200 per couple, and up to $100,000 for a full sponsorship) and McCain’s post-election speech to GOPAC (“Common Sense Conservatism”).

That speech showed McCain, even as the putative establishment candidate, is still not Miss Congeniality. While many colleagues blamed the 2006 election defeat on the president, McCain said: “We lost our principles and our majority. And there is no way to recover our majority without recovering our principles first.” At a time when Republicans want to hurry out of Iraq, McCain reiterated support for the Iraq intervention and declared “victory is still attainable.”

Ideological conservatives are not happy about McCain’s ascendancy, and bemoan a vacuum on the right. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is trying to run to McCain’s right, but his past liberal positions on abortion and gay rights get in the way. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating are testing prospects of filling the vacuum, but the required fund-raising will be daunting.

Actually, McCain’s danger may be on his left, if former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is able to get New Hampshire independents to vote for him in a Republican primary as they did for McCain in 2000. But Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 each lost New Hampshire and recovered elsewhere as incorporated juggernauts. McCain, with that configuration, will be hard to stop.