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February 8, 2008

The Opening

Yesterday's speech to CPAC gave John McCain an opening to rational consideration of support by conservatives, and it didn't come in the necessary phrases of rapprochement. John McCain made an offer to conservatives for access and influence. Will they take it, or will they walk away and leave McCain to make that offer to other Republicans and centrists?

McCain focused the latter part of his speech on the big issues that he says will define the election -- the war, the Democratic insistence on statist policies, and entitlement reform. He concluded that part of the argument with this (emphasis mine):

These are but a few of the differences that will define this election. They are very significant differences, and I promise you, I intend to contest these issues on conservative grounds and fight as hard as I can to defend the principles and positions we share, and to keep this country safe, proud, prosperous and free.

We have had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won't continue to have a few. But even in disagreement, especially in disagreement, I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives. If I am convinced my judgment is in error, I will correct it. And if I stand by my position, even after benefit of your counsel, I hope you will not lose sight of the far more numerous occasions when we are in complete accord.

If conservatives hear that carefully, that is an invitation to the table. They should accept that invitation and start seeking to fill the seats. McCain will eventually have a need for advisers on a myriad of public policy issues, and we can test the offer by pushing for more conservative voices in that inner circle. McCain already got a head start in this regard by bringing Ted Olson and Steve Forbes onto his team, but especially on energy and immigration, we can press for more influence.

One reason Mitt appealed to conservatives was his ability to listen and learn. Mitt became more conservative the longer he was in office, while the perception of McCain has been the opposite. McCain has always been his own man, and that will not likely change now; in fact, it's been part of McCain's appeal, especially on fiscal discipline and the war. A presidency is a lot different than a legislative term, however, and an executive has to appoint a lot of people to carry out policy in detail. Conservatives can put themselves in position to fill a number of slots -- but only if they help put McCain in office.

As I believe Georges Clemenceau once said, in order to get a seat at the feast, one has to help set the table. This is the choice facing conservatives. Either we help set the table and join in public policy and use our influence to help shape a Republican administration, or we abandon McCain and get four or eight years of statist policy that could take a generation to undo. Even worse, the conservatives might watch McCain get elected without their assistance -- and watch themselves get marginalized as a movement for a very, very long time.

Most of the people here at CPAC understand that choice very well. A few still do not. Fortunately -- and this is Mitt Romney's generous gift to the Republicans -- the factional war has ended, and we can hope that the long run-up to the convention will give an opportunity for the visceral reactions to McCain's nomination to fade. McCain can assist that by fulfilling his promise yesterday to bring more conservatives onto his campaign for counsel.


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