The Revenge Candidate?

Contrary to popular conservative myth, the nomination of John McCain did not materialize out of thin air. It didn’t result from a liberal conspiracy, it wasn’t the moderates’ fault, and he didn’t just stumble into it.

Here are five semi-counterintuitive reasons why McCain will be giving the Big Speech in Minneapolis on Labor Day:

1. While conservatives were off flirting with every Rudy, Fred, and Huck, the Nice Guy, Mitt, waited patiently, holding a bouquet. By the time we realized the Flash in the Pan Guys weren’t the ones to bring home to mom, it was too late for the Nice Guy. And the Bad Boy already had the ticket to the Big Dance.

2. A lot of people have actually voted for McCain, and they weren’t just moderates and Independents. Enough Republicans have voted for him to give him the nomination — and yes, a decent number of conservatives have too.

3. Iraq. McCain staked his entire presidential campaign on supporting the president’s policy in Iraq, and then put his ambitions further out on a scrawny limb by supporting the troop surge — when most politicians, including Republicans, were openly skeptical. It was a huge gamble, and it paid off.

4. A twenty-five year-long conservative (yes, conservative) record. The reason so many Republicans have been voting for McCain is not because he’s a wild-eyed liberal. It is true that over the past eight or so years, McCain has been off the conservative reservation on a number of key issues. He has relished sticking it to conservatives on tax cuts, illegal immigration, campaign finance, Guantanamo, etc.

But McCain’s problem isn’t that he’s a leftie. It’s that he’s unpredictable. Conservatives — like most other voters — want to know what kind of president their candidate will be. That’s awfully hard to do with McCain — except if we take a step back and look at his longer history. For almost three decades, he’s been a fierce tax cutter, budget slasher, national defense hawk, and pro-life warrior. He’s come around on the Bush tax cuts and (at least somewhat, albeit begrudgingly) on illegal immigration. On the other issues bothersome to conservatives, let’s remember that Ronald Reagan raised taxes, withdrew from Lebanon after the terrorist attack against our Marines, signed a hugely destructive amnesty bill, and wanted to offer total nuclear disarmament to the Soviets. Even Reagan wasn’t Reagan.

5. Finally, the 2000 election is proving more seminal — and in a different way — than anybody thought. Most people assumed Al Gore would get in the race, and that he’d be the immediate Democratic frontrunner because of the Revenge Vote. Most Democrats think he wuz robbed in 2000, the election stolen from him by George W. Bush. Last year, they were full of old anger and ready to extract their revenge. Then Gore didn’t get in, and that was the end of any talk about a Revenge Vote.

But we should also think of McCain in that context. In the 2000 election, it wasn’t just Gore who people thought got robbed. It was McCain too. He won the New Hampshire primary. The Straight Talk Express was rolling along toward the nomination, when whammo! The Bush team clubbed him in South Carolina, and that was the end of the McCain juggernaut.

What you see in his nomination is at least partly, the Revenge Vote. There are a lot of Republicans, moderates, Independents, even Democrats, who like McCain and thought he wuz robbed in 2000. Here comes another chance to support him, to right a wrong, to even “erase” to some extent the Bush years by rewarding McCain.

If this sounds farfetched, remember that voting is an emotional act. Yes, it’s an intellectual exercise and yes, it’s grounded in core beliefs. But it’s also — perhaps more so — emotional. Of those running, whom do you like the most? Whom do you respect? Whom do you trust? Whom do you want in your living room for four years? Whom do you want ordering your sons and daughters and sisters and brothers into combat?

Voting is about feeling, which is why the idea of the Revenge Vote is so important. Voting is impulsive — at the same time it’s thought out. You may agree with Hillary Clinton but feel she’s a conniving hydra-headed monster. You may like Barack Obama but feel he’s not ready for primetime. You may respect John McCain but feel he’s not an authentic conservative. Emotional arguments can be made against all of the candidates — and for them too. And that’s just it: we think we’re thinking through all of the important issues and making detached, dispassionate judgments. But the truth is we’re not as dispassionate as we think.

On election day, we’re not just voting with our heads. We’re voting with our hearts too — or maybe more accurately, our guts. And sometimes, if not most of the time, our guts do the leading.

Behold, John McCain.