CONVENTIONAL wisdom among political handlers used to hold that a candidate needed to capture the political center. The last two presidential campaigns proved that wrong. The Republicans scraped out victories by pressing just enough buttons and mobilizing just enough voters. But such wins breed political polarization and deprive a president of the political capital needed to ask Americans to sacrifice in difficult times.
The antidote to such a toxic political approach is John McCain. The iconoclastic senator from Arizona has earned his reputation for straight talk by actually leveling with voters, even at significant political expense. The Globe endorses his bid in the New Hampshire Republican primary.
McCain is a conservative whose views differ from those of this editorial page in a variety of ways. He opposes abortion rights. At least in the current election cycle, he has shown no particular quarrel with his party's knee-jerk view of tax cuts as the cure to the nation's economic problems.
Also unlike this page, McCain has strongly supported the current war in Iraq, including the troop surge. Yet the Arizona senator has never been an uncritical booster of President Bush's policies. Early on, he accurately predicted that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wasn't sending enough troops to maintain order after Saddam Hussein fell. Today, he straightforwardly acknowledges the fragility of the Iraqi government and the corruption that pervades that country. He understands that US failures in Iraq, along with President Bush's torpid response to Hurricane Katrina, have damaged the nation's credibility abroad and at home.
McCain's honesty has served him well on other issues. As a longtime public official from a border state, he recognizes that illegal immigration is a complex problem - for which better border control is only part of the solution. His thoughtful stance may be a tough sell politically at a time when many Republicans (and many Democrats) are anxious about the number of people living and working in the United States illegally. But his opponents' get-tough poses are unlikely to close the gap between immigration law and immigration practice; McCain's comprehensive approach is far more likely to bring the two back in line.
One of McCain's great virtues is his willingness to acknowledge unpleasant realities. McCain sees that special interests with money to throw around have an undue influence over the electoral process and public policy, that the planet is getting warmer because of human activities, that interrogating a suspect by pretending to drown him is a form of torture. To the consternation of many of his fellow Republicans, McCain has pushed for serious reform legislation in all three areas.
In 2000, McCain's insurgent candidacy almost succeeded in stopping the George W. Bush juggernaut. This time around, McCain is running further back in the pack of candidates. Yet Republican voters in New Hampshire would be wise to consider this: Of all the party's candidates, McCain has the greatest potential appeal to independent voters.
The Arizona senator is running for president at a treacherous time. Iraq is in flames. The economy is weak. American voters are worried about their futures, and about their government's ability to enforce its own laws. A general election campaign with John McCain in it is more likely to turn on substance, not demagoguery.
As a lawmaker and as a candidate, McCain has done more than his share to transcend partisanship and promote an honest discussion of the problems facing the United States. He deserves the opportunity to represent his party in November's election.