January 23, 2008

McCain's Daunting Task With Conservatives

Yesterday, I wrote that John McCain has a legitimate claim to conservatism in a significant part of his legislative history, in response to claims of demonization from Michael Medved against a large portion of the conservative punditry. In another essay, I agreed with EJ Dionne that McCain had to find a way to win conservatives in the upcoming closed primaries without looking like a flip-flopper, but I disagreed that he would have to sell his soul to do so. A change in tone would make up most of the lost ground.

Today, two fine bloggers take different looks on this issue. Paul Mirengoff at Power Line writes that ejecting less-than-pure conservatives from the movement is damaging, but isn't convinced that's what happened:

Huckabee represents a different case. He did well among the very conservative even though many conservative “leaders” don’t consider him very conservative. This occurred because the very conservative South Carolinians who voted for Huckabee tended to be evangelicals who placed a very high premium on their particular agenda. To that extent at least, Brooks is correct when he says “conservative voters are much more diverse than the image you’d get from conservative officialdom.”

As you can probably tell from that passage, Brooks bristles with contempt for conservative intellectuals who read less than “pure” conservatives out of the movement. I think I understand where he’s coming from. It is incorrect in my view to claim that, on balance, McCain and Huckabee are liberals. At worst, they are moderates who lean to the right. But conservatives certainly aren’t out-of-line to the extent that they criticize McCain or Huckabee for specific non-conservative positions they take on major issues. To borrow Brooks’ terms, it may be misguided for conservatives to “expel” McCain and Huckabee, but it’s not necessarily inappropriate to “find them wanting.”

At Hard Starboard (cross-posted at Heading Right), Jasmius argues that McCain's tenor and policy stands can't be separated, and that he has no claim to membership in a group which he has continually disparaged:

Anybody paying attention to John McCain’s gleeful policy heresies of the past seven years knows that policy and tone are, for him, two sides of the same coin. And it isn’t just on campaign finance reform and immigration amnesty that the “Arizona maverick” has burned down the reservation. There’s his classist opposition to the Bush tax cuts, his championing of environmental extremism while still Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, his “anti-torture” crusade that seeks to accord full constitutional rights to captured enemy combatants and kneecap efforts to gather critical intelligence needed to prevent terrorist attacks. And dare any of us forget arguably McCain’s biggest back-stab of all, the “Gang of 14″ deal that nullified any attempt to terminate Senate Democrats’ extra-constitutional filibusters of appellate court nominations. In that one piece of spiteful backroom manuevering John McCain signed the death warrant for his party’s Senate majority and displayed his faithlessness to the Constitution he wants to be sworn in to uphold.

And now that he needs the votes of that self-same Republican base that he has scorned for all these years, “Mr. Straight Talk” is pandering to them with all his weaselly might.

Obviously, I disagree with Jasmius, but he does have a point. McCain has created much of the bad blood with conservative pundits and activists, and he hasn't tried hard to soothe the ruffled feathers over the years. I don't consider McCain "weaselly" at all, and in fact, it's his allergy to pandering that has caused most of his problems. Conservatives seem to love that when it comes to his positions on the Iraq war and foreign policy -- especially his hard-line rhetoric about Iran -- but certainly don't appreciate it when he scornfully disagrees with conservatives rather than liberals.

At some point, though, McCain will need this base if he wants to win the election. Since he wants its support, that will require McCain to make the first moves towards reconciling the coalition to his banner. That will have to include some acknowledgment of his role in the contretemps, as well as a legitimate and respectful debate over the differences. Rudy Giuliani provided the model for this in his campaign statements on differences over abortion, in which Rudy very respectfully maintained his own policy stand while respecting the differences with the base.

McCain may well win the nomination without the conservative base, but he won't win the general election with those activists sitting on the sidelines. The time to start entering into a dialogue is now. A visit to CPAC could go a long way towards mending fences and doing some listening.


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