John McCain meets some of his fiercest critics today at CPAC, with a 3 pm ET speech that will provide a critical moment for both the candidate and the activists. Most have focused on what McCain has to do to reach out to the conservatives, but fewer understand that the movement has a decision to make as well regarding its future and its relevance.
First, let's focus on McCain. The Senator will not win an election by suddenly gainsaying everything he has done over the past eight years since his last presidential campaign. He will have to focus on the future, including the future of the badly-needed immigration reform that everyone wants but no one can define to consensus. McCain will need to commit to nominating judges to the bench that will not legislate from there.
He has to end the false dichotomy of "patriotism, not profit" and the little war of words on Wall Street, a kind of populism that conservatives rightly reject. He will also need to recast his focus on global warming to acknowledge that the US cannot unilaterally handicap itself economically and allow more manufacturing to disappear overseas thanks to even more expensive domestic energy production.
If McCain can do all of that, he will have come more than halfway to meeting the conservatives. If the latter doesn't show up at that halfway point, though, they risk more than a lost election. They put their credibility at risk as a coalition partner for rational governance.
Despite the size of CPAC, the conservative wing of the Republican Party is one of several factions within a big tent. Within that movement exists sub-factions as well. In order to have influence over public policy, any movement has to align itself with other compatible factions to form a governing coalition. That means sharing decisions and sometimes subordinating some issues in order to hold the coalition together, including leadership decisions.
Responsible coalition members understand that dynamic. Factions that refuse to cooperate in a coalition wind up marginalized and pushing the coalition in the opposite direction. If McCain wins the nomination without conservatives, he will push towards the center in the general election. Win or lose, the conservatives will have no influence on public policy either way, and will not be trusted as coalition partners for a long, long time afterwards.
Everyone has a lot at stake today. Conservatives owe McCain a hearing today, and they owe it to themselves to carefully consider whether they want to be taken seriously in the future.
Addendum: Rick Moran has a very funny "preview" of the McCain speech and his welcome at CPAC.