Do you remember then-Vice President Dick Cheney endorsing Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for president in 2008? According to the wonderful Game Change, page 423: “When Cheney’s friends learned about the endorsement, they laughed. . . . That was him flipping the senator the bird.” That was my reaction to McCain’s endorsement of former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) for the 2012 Republican nomination.
The two appeared together on the same stage for what may be the first time since they were debating each other, where McCain told the crowd that Romney was the best choice for the GOP standard-bearer. As Game Change also notes, on page 294, “McCain routinely called Romney an ‘asshole’ and a ‘fucking phony’” during the 2008 primaries. Current coverage has made no small mention of the shared antipathy between the two of four years ago, as well as McCain’s “snub” of former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-UT), one of his earliest backers.
This may be wishful thinking on my part, but McCain may have given Huntsman a major in. Despite today’s events, can you honestly imagine McCain endorsing Romney? People have endorsed him because of his poll numbers and his personal life, but never his record. He’s in the lead, he was once a governor and there’s no chance of him screwing around on his charming wife. That’s as far as Romney’s appeal goes. And McCain would endorse a good Democrat before a bad Republican.
Beyond that, McCain’s highly developed knowledge of his own public image automatically means his knowledge of his ex-opponent’s public image is a no-brainer. Solid conservatives don’t trust Romney. They didn’t trust McCain, either. The difference is that McCain sticks to beliefs that make sense for him while Romney scrambles to find beliefs that make sense for the conservative party line. By making an association between himself and Romney, McCain has helped Republican warriors do the same.
While such psychological warfare is far from McCain’s stock-in-trade, he’s not inexperienced in strategic politics, and I’m sure he learned something from the Cheney endorsement of yore. (His choice of running mate didn’t help him much last election, but that seemed like a good idea at the time.) Romney is too polite and too much of an attention whore not to appear on stage with McCain. But he’s not a dumb guy. I’m sure this possibility crossed his mind.
This gives Huntsman even more breathing room to establish his solidity in comparison to Romney, who may now be painted as a “McCain moderate.” Holistically, he may still be more moderate than his opponents, but apparently Americans dig that.