Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Can McCain Unify the GOP?

John McCain, on the heels of his decisive Florida victory, could unify the Republican Party in a new conservative coalition, argues the Los Angeles Times:

John McCain now has a pathway to the Republican presidential nomination. The question is whether he can put his fractured party back together.

The Arizona senator, long the bane of the GOP establishment, showed in Florida that he could begin cobbling together a new Republican coalition -- attracting enough support from all corners of the party base to give him a plurality in the biggest and most diverse state to vote so far in the 2008 campaign.

He took about a quarter of conservatives, secured nearly a third of evangelicals, dominated among his typical base of self-described moderates, and won easily among voters who care about authenticity, experience and electability.

In winning Florida, McCain threw off a major critique of his candidacy: He prevailed in an all-Republican primary that excluded the more moderate independents who had ensured McCain's wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

And in a state plagued by insurance woes, falling home prices and a rising number of foreclosures, he defeated a rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who had portrayed himself as the best-equipped to fix the economy.

Still, exit polls and voter interviews here showed that McCain had far to go before he could claim the party mantle.

He won about 1 in 5 voters who called themselves "very conservative." An even smaller share of GOP voters said McCain "shares my values." He benefited from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose presence on the ballot drew support from many conservatives in the Orlando, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville areas that Romney needed to win.

McCain, a moderate on immigration issues, dominated among Cuban Americans and other Latino voters who make up a far greater share of the Republican electorate than in other states.

Tuesday's results set up a dramatic face-off over the next six days as McCain and Romney compete in more than 20 states. Each man aims to prove that only he can build the elusive GOP coalition.

Let's address the last point first: Can McCain vanquish Romney on Super Tuesday, when 22 primary states are in play?

The odds are heavily in McCain's favor.

Florida will create so much momentum for McCain - in the earned-media exposure of week-long television coverage, the bump in poll standings nationwide, and the surge in cash contributions, and in the mantle of GOP frontrunner - that Romney may never recover, even with his huge personal fortune.

The longer-term issue is if, when, and how McCain can win over the conservative base of the party - including members of the "irrational right" who've staked their reputations on destroying the Arizona Senator, the strength of the GOP in Novemberbe damned?

I'm frankly pessimistic that many base conservatives will forgive McCain for his apostasies, especially on immigration.

Military veterans will be inclined to support McCain, out of martial loyalty and a clear understanding of McCain's ability to handle international conflict.

Other conservatives, dismissive of McCain's hero reputation, will continue to vilify him out of spite. They'll constantly harp on McCain's efforts bipartisanship as a GOP sellout campaign. He'll be pilloried as no better than Hillary Clinton, a pretender to the mantle of the next great GOP presdident.

This is a big mistake.

Both effective political development over the long-term and conducive political mobilization and consensus on the front-end require a pragmatism in outlook, a willingness to clip the elements of fanciful - fanatical - ideology, to carve out a workable governing program. At issue is the need for a new, robust governing vision that drives the GOP as the leading party for a diverse, 21st-century America.

McCain's the one for this job. I've said so all along. I confident that he'll reach out to the base. Frankly, deep conservative will have to move toward him, to heal the party and build a winning coalition.