Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Irony of a McCain Candidacy

As we’ve seen, the inevitable candidacy of John McCain has left the various elements of the Republican Party struggling to mend fences while trying to drown out the voices urging conservatives to sit this one out.

In the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger, debates the proper course for Republicans: “
McCain or Wilderness”?

Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham aren't the only conservatives in agony over John McCain. The base is bummed. There are murmurs of heading into the political wilderness. Sit this one out. Rather than sell the party's soul to John McCain, let Hillary have it, or Barack. Go into opposition for four years while the party gets its head together and comes up with an authentic conservative candidate. If this sourness takes hold at the margin, say among GOP anti-immigrant voters, it might happen.

The wilderness is a good place to find yourself, if you're a prophet. There are reasons, though, why a principled political retreat won't make conservative prospects better. The point of a principled retreat would be to rediscover coherence amid doctrinal confusion. The exact opposite is likely to happen.

Most of the distrust of the McCain candidacy is rooted in personal ill will. He's a hard case, and activists are often brittle. The fear is that one of the strongest impulses in a McCain presidency will be payback, and that he might sell out conservatives on taxes and the judiciary. That is possible, though by now it would require an act of deep duplicity by Mr. McCain. Here again, the conservatives should show more self-confidence.

This isn't an apologia for the senator. Unlike Reagan, he is too self-preoccupied. There is a danger his presidency would be mainly about legacy, and therefore disorganized. This is a call to play the cards on the table. Conservatives are not in the wilderness. They should get back in the game.

The attacks of movement conservatives - particularly the talk radio and blogging crowd - on John McCain have reached a shrill, off-key crescendo. McCain is not only "dangerous" and "stupid," he has "contempt for his fellow humans." His opponents will refuse to vote in the general election, or even will campaign for Hillary Clinton. With McCain now almost the last man standing, it will be interesting to see how, or if, these pledges are fulfilled.

For some conservatives, the frustrations run deeper than resentment for a single, outsized, prickly, infuriating man. Early in this cycle, many elements of the Republican coalition rooted for - and fully expected - a decisive, ideological break from the compromised Bush years on issues such as immigration and foreign policy. Those hopes have been disappointed.

The lessons of the McCain resurrection run deeper than the limits of talk radio: Candidates of unity are more appealing and electable. American ideals are indispensable in the conduct of American foreign policy. Some conservatives have reacted with anger. For others of us, there is only relief.
Gerson is not alone. As Politico points out, “Conservatives have already found something to like about John McCain: They think he can win in November.” Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating elaborates: “The public who wants change is comfortable with John McCain, whom they view as someone who is not a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bush administration." Keating believes the very issues that have estranged McCain from much of the conservative base “have actually strengthened him with moderates.”

That may be. But as McCain treads his political tight rope toward the general election, his balancing act of appeasing conservatives without alienating moderates will continue. With Mike Huckabee and the base tugging from the right and President Bush beginning to embrace his candidacy, McCain could topple. The ultimate irony could become reality - the more popular McCain becomes with conservatives, the more likely he loses that trait that they find most appealing - his electability.

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