Friday, January 25, 2008

Conservative Fears in Election '08

It's been an unusually interesting time for blogging this last couple of weeks, since John McCain won the New Hampshire primary.

In resurrecting his political campaign, McCain's triggered the most vitriolic debate on the future of the conservative movement since G.H.W. Bush broke his "read-my-lips-no-new-taxes" pledge in 1990.

The debate's been felt at
American Power. Some longtime conservative commenters here have frankly become unhinged at the prospect of McCain securing the GOP nomination. This is uncomfortable, for vigorous debates and an occasional coffee-house atmosphere have prevailed here on many occasions. This is especially true on questions of Iraq and international security. Indeed, building a community of national security conservatives to fight left-wing appeasement and nihilism has been a driving goal of my project.

But the McCain campaign has fractured the conservative blogging community, and in the larger media environment - in the mainstream media and talk radio - conservatives appear more crazed than ever in their goals for the movement and the Republican Party.

Sure, the primary process is designed to winnow the also-rans, elevating a strong movement leader to raise the party's standard. But that's not happened this year. It's no surprise, of course. With no incumbent president or vice-president seeking the nomination, the 2008 election marks the first time since 1928 in which a GOP race has been considered this wide open.

Susan Page at USA Today on the GOP's current divisions:
Never before in modern times has there been such a muddle over the GOP nominee.

Republicans have seen three different contenders win the first three major contests — this year in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan — something that hasn't happened in the GOP since primaries began to dominate the nominating process.

At this point, none of the contenders confidently can claim front-runner status. Four — McCain, Huckabee, Romney and Giuliani — can credibly argue they could be nominated. The fifth candidate still in the race, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, has the money to continue his anti-war, anti-establishment crusade.

The field hasn't been significantly winnowed not because the contenders are so strong, but because none of them is fully acceptable to all the major factions of the GOP.
As McCain moves forward to capture the mantle of national Republican frontrunner, conservative activists are increasingly alarmed.

Jay Carney over at Time suggests there's some fear and irrationalism driving the opposition to McCain's straight-talk juggernaut:

Conservative fears about McCain are often irrational: through a 25-year career in Congress, first in the House and then in the Senate, McCain has proved himself consistently pro-life on abortion and a hawk on defense, a scourge of wasteful government spending and a generally reliable vote in favor of tax cuts. Yet at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of party power brokers, McCain was booed.

Conservative élites are the ones most likely to break out into hives at the mention of McCain's name. Former Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay has declared that he would not vote for McCain in the general election, even if Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee. Railing against McCain and Huckabee, both of whom he views as anathema to conservatives, talk-radio kingpin Rush Limbaugh recently warned his 13.5 million listeners, "If either of these two guys gets the nomination, it's going to destroy the Republican Party." A few days later, Limbaugh was so outraged by the possibility that Republicans might support McCain that he bellowed, "If you Republicans don't mind McCain's positions, then what is it about Hillary's positions you dislike? They're the same!"

The truth is that McCain and Clinton remain far apart on the political spectrum. But it is also true that conservatives have a lengthy bill of complaint against McCain. In the past decade he has joined with Democrats on a series of crusades in Congress — with Russ Feingold on campaign-finance reform and Ted Kennedy on immigration reform — that a majority of Republicans have opposed. He voted against President Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and '03, each time citing the need for fiscal restraint. And during his 2000 campaign, he labeled Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance."

He has seemed to delight in doing battle with members of his own party and creed. "John's mistake is that he makes it personal," says a close friend in Washington. "When he's convinced he's doing the right thing, he has a hard time staying above the fray." All the while — and this may be what galls conservatives most — McCain has been hailed by liberals and lionized in the mainstream news media for being a rebel.

This maverick reputation, so prized for its general-election appeal, makes it difficult for McCain to pass the primary threshold. As was the case in 2000, McCain in 2008 has yet to win even a plurality of Republican votes in a presidential primary outside his home state of Arizona and the generally liberal Northeast.

This frustrates McCain, something I saw over dinner with him in Washington in May 2002, when McCain told me he was probably through with running for President. He had tried it two years before and almost pulled off a historic upset against Bush. But, he said, "you can't bottle lightning." Twice during dinner, patrons went over to shake McCain's hand and urge him to run again — against Bush in 2004 — as an independent or Democrat. The Senator was gracious and noncommittal. But after the second time, he gave me an exaggerated roll of his eyes and shook his head. "I'm a Republican, for chrissakes!"
The whole controversy seems almost unreal. McCain's widely considered to represent the most fundamental appeal to American honor among any politician currently on the scene.

Given such thoughts, I find the debate on McCain's conservative credentials rather undignified, even juvenile at times.

I've supported McCain since early 2007, when I first learned he was seeking the nomination. I put up a few posts (here-and-there) on the Arizona Senator throughout 2007. I wasn't all that upset when his campaign started to tank last summer, and through my blogging I've been evaluating the various GOP hopefuls and weighing my vote. On foreign policy, I consider all the to GOP candidates vastly superior to the Democratic field. Even Mike Huckabee - for all his folksy inexperience in international affairs - has the gut instincts on the rightness of our cause, and he'll duly represent our infinite determination to defend American freedom. (I don't consider Ron Paul to be a top-tier candidate, and his candidacy has been an embarrassment to the GOP cause of American power).

The Florida primary next Tuesday will not settle matters for Republicans. If McCain wins the Sunshine State, he'll be annointed by the press as the prohibitive GOP frontrunner - but the conservative base will kick-and-scream all the way through the February 5 round of primaries and beyond.

I'll be blogging for McCain throughout it all. Some conservative blogging buddies, I'm sure, aren't so happy with my McCain enthusiasm, and some will turn against me on the basis of their narrow self-interest. That's life - politics ain't beanbag. Others - so far as I can tell - appear to value their online relationships, and will be breathing easier when the nomination is all wrapped up. That's certainly how I feel.

But I'll be sticking to my guns, reporting and commenting on the race as I see it. I'm for McCain, sure. But I'm also a political scientist who's been formally studying politics for over 20 years. If McCain fails to secure the party's backing, I'll be thrilled to rally behind the eventually nominee.

What I won't do is demonize anyone, and I won't compromise my personal integrity by making cheap shots at others who don't toe any particulary ideological line. May the best man win, I say. But in the end conservatives need to look ahead to November. Vilifying McCain now only helps pave the way for Democratic electoral success in November.

The Arizona Senator's a genuine, virtuous Republican, and
his conservative record is outstanding. I'm confident he'll provide the leadership and stature to unify the country, and the world. More than that, he'll win with honor, whatever happens - and so far that's more than I can say for some his opponents intent on hammering him into oblivion.