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Can Palin Save McCain's Political Life? Should She?

4 years ago
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When John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate, he did the not-yet-launched Tea Party movement a hefty favor by elevating to national prominence a woman who could lead this disparate band of grassroots conservative activists and give a powerful voice to their protests and passions. ("Death panels!") And how do the Tea Partiers pay back McCain? By trying to send him to the old folk's home.

Tea Party types have rushed to support the campaign of former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who is challenging McCain in Arizona's Republican senatorial primary. Hayworth, who years ago left the House to become a radio talk show host in Phoenix, only moved into the race last week, but some preliminary polls put him in practically a dead heat with the four-term senator.

A mere 15 months earlier, McCain was the presidential nominee of his party. Now he's a target for those conservatives who are pursuing Republican moderates (or perceived Republican moderates) the way zombies chase after non-zombies in the movies. The far-right Internet chat corners are lit up with folks denouncing "Juan Amnesty McCain" for having once been a co-author of the McCain-Feingold legislation (campaign finance reform), the McCain-Lieberman bill (climate change), and the McCain-Kennedy act (immigration reform.) Some even decry him for opposing the use of torture. It's not hard to find anti-McCain crusaders slamming the guy of being "a socialist."

That's quite an accusation for a legislator who has an 82.3 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. Hayworth did achieve a higher ranking of 97.6 percent. But on this site last week, conservative writer Matt Lewis contended that Hayworth, who had been a pork-loving legislator who became too close to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, was far from a perfect conservative.

All politics may be local, with McCain's previous support for immigration reform fueling the backlash against him in Arizona. But his face-off with Hayworth has national implications. It's a major front in the GOP civil war, where -- to mix a historical metaphor -- Tea Partiers are demanding the party bounce non-conservatives in favor of conservatives. (Another key battleground: Florida, where former state House Speaker Marco Rubio is the Tea People's choice against Gov. Charlie Crist in that state's GOP Senate primary.) And this Arizona shoot-out puts Sarah Palin, the TP darling, on the wrong side.

The former Alaska governor has declared that she will campaign for McCain. How could she not? Where would she be without him? In Juneau -- still toiling at the governor's desk, unknown to most of us in the lower 48 (except for a few pundits at The Weekly Standard) and with no millions from a book contract. Loyalty and decency demand she stand by her man. And she'd look darn silly if, after claiming that McCain was the most qualified man to lead the United States in these perilous times, she now said he wasn't up to being a senator.

Still -- and this shows you how far the Tea Party craziness can go -- there are conservatives demanding that Palin dump McCain for Hayworth. (It's another GOP soap opera -- or sitcom: "John, J.D. and Sarah.") Blogger/columnist Michelle Malkin has suggested Palin ought to trade loyalty for ideology and help put McCain in "the pasture." She writes, "Tea Party activists are rightly outraged by Sarah Palin's decision to campaign for McCain, whose entrenched incumbency and progressive views are anathema to the movement." Palin probably can stand this heat. But Tea Partiers will no doubt be watching closely to discern just how much effort she applies to save McCain. Is there anything humorous or ironic in the fact that McCain -- after his presidential campaign aides have pummeled Palin and depicted her as a know-nothing ninny -- now needs her to rescue him?

Democrats face the discouraging possibility that come this time next year the Senate seats once held by Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and Barack Obama will be in the possession of Republicans. Seeing McCain eaten alive by his own will hardly be compensation. But it would be a somewhat fitting end to McCain's political career.

For years, McCain was indeed something of a maverick Republican. And when he ran for the party's presidential nomination in 2000, he was assailed -- and viciously besmirched by conservative operatives. (The rumors they spread: He had been brainwashed in Vietnam, he had fathered a dark-skinned child out of wedlock, his wife was an addict.) Nevertheless, eight years later, McCain courted (or sold out to) conservatives, moving right to win their raging hearts, and he handed them the biggest prize he could: Sarah Palin. After that, they're still gunning for him. The primary is in August, and McCain may end up being forcibly retired by the people to whom he had sucked up. He should have realized he couldn't satisfy this blood-thirsty crowd. There's no such thing as gratitude in politics.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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