Time on the campaign trail is slippery–a day is a week is a month. The only thing you notice, after a while, is how nice the bedsheets are in your new hotel room. That said, I have vivid memories of late-night barroom conversations with both journalists and campaign aides in South Carolina. And the calendar says that happened a little more than a week ago.
The conversations, always about politics, often came down to a remarkable fact: John McCain was campaigning in South Carolina without any rival hitting him on his record in the Senate, which has long frustrated conservatives. Mike Huckabee would only criticize him obliquely. Fred Thompson just talked about the rottenness of Huckabee. Rudy Giuliani was absent. Mitt Romney was busy telling everyone that Nevada mattered.
Well, McCain’s vacation from criticism ended today. Romney came out and accused McCain of being a liberal, which in the Republican Party is something like accusing a six year old of hating Santa Claus. McCain struck back, calling Romney a liberal. So it goes.
In truth, when it comes to domestic policy both of the men are relative moderates in the Republican Party, especially when compared to some of their rivals who have since left the race–Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter and Sam Brownback. Remember, Romney is the one who pledged to be better than Ted Kennedy for gay rights. Romney is the one who once called for “campaign spending limits” in U.S. Senate elections. (See the video here.) Romney is the one who boasted at the Iowa State Fair of working with Ted Kennedy to get health care reform passed in Massachusetts. (See my video of this here.)
Yet there I was this afternoon, in an Orlando airplane hangar, listening to Romney go on and on about the horror of McCain’s bipartisanship. He mentioned the full trifecta of McCain’s top-bill work in the Senate: McCain-Feingold (campaign finance reform), McCain-Kennedy (immigration reform) and McCain-Lieberman (climate change regulation). It was his message of the day: John McCain is a legislator who works with Democrats.
There are real differences between the two men on these issues. On immigration, Romney wants to send illegal immigrants out of the country before putting them on a path to citizenship, and McCain would let them stay here. On campaign finance reform, Romney is against the bill that McCain sponsored, though he once shared McCain’s concerns. On climate change, Romney supports the concept of a cap and trade bill if it is implemented globally, though he thinks McCain’s bill is too expensive.
But today’s fireworks were not really about the issues. They were about branding. Both men are trying to appear more conservative, when neither of them are true-blue conservatives. The main difference is that Romney has tried to recast himself in recent years as a true conservative, while McCain remains basically the same guy he has always been–conservative by disposition but independent in spirit. Both are hurling stones from brittle homes.