Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Conservatives Must Back McCain

Fred Barnes has the perfect analysis of John McCain's dilemmas in attracting the right-wing of the Republican Party, at the Wall Street Journal:

John McCain has a problem. After winning South Carolina's primary last Saturday, he should be the overwhelming favorite to capture the Republican presidential nomination. He's not, at least not yet, and the reason is that he's alienated so many conservatives over the past eight years.

Mr. McCain may become the Republican nominee anyway -- in spite of thunderous opposition by conservatives including radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and American Conservative Union (ACU) head David Keene. Even then, to win the general election, he must find a way to reconcile with conservatives and unify the Republican Party.

Mr. McCain will have to take the initiative to repair the relationship, and he appears ready to do just that.

His victory speech in South Carolina marked a new step. Rather than dwell on the hardy perennials of his campaign message, national security and patriotism, Mr. McCain spoke more broadly about his conservative goals. "We want government to do its job, not your job," he said, "and to do it with less of your money." He praised "free markets, low taxes and small government."

Moreover, Mr. McCain intends to go beyond conservative boilerplate and actually campaign as a conservative. His congressional voting record is predominantly conservative (ACU rating 82.3%), qualifying him to do so. He's already stepped outside his comfort zone on taxes, endorsing a cut in the corporate tax rate to 25% from 35%.

If he echoes the talking points dispatched to his surrogates over the weekend, he'll be fine. Besides touting Mr. McCain's ability to step in as "commander in chief on Day One," they were urged to emphasize what an ally calls a "Kemp-Gramm mishmash" of tax and spending cuts. Another point to stress: "Winning in November" is crucial to putting conservative judges on the Supreme Court.

It's worth noting the presence of supply-sider Jack Kemp and spending foe Phil Gramm on the McCain team. In fact, the Arizona senator has attracted an impressive array of conservative supporters, including Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Trent Lott of Mississippi, former Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, and ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Read the whole thing, since Barnes is penetrating on McCain's remaining obstacles.

Deep conservatives fear the destruction of the GOP under a McCain presidency. The Arizona Senator's compromises with the Democratic opposition have forever marked him as a traitor to many in the party.

I think this is mistaken. Already McCain's toed the conservative line in recent statements, and his overall conservative ratings are comparable to any other candidate in the race.

The irony is that McCain's most important qualification - his readiness for commander-in-chief - is being discounted precisely because his signature support for the war in Iraq has been vindicated.

I think the real threat to the Republican Party is the
continued demonization campaign waged against McCain. The dynamic of momentum has turned nearly irrevocably in McCain's favor. Fred Thompson's on the way out, and Mitt Romney's hanging on largely on account of personal wealth. Public opinion has not only elevated McCain to the status of GOP frontrunner, he's clearly seen as the most competent candidate of either party on leadership qualities.

The longer conservatives hammer McCain - delaying the party rally that's necessary to showing a unified parisan front in the general election - the deeper the damage will be.


UPDATE: Via Captain Ed, Michael Medved says conservative talk radio was the biggest loser coming out of South Carolina's primary:

The big loser in South Carolina was, in fact, talk radio: a medium that has unmistakably collapsed in terms of impact, influence and credibility because of its hysterical and one-dimensional involvement in the GOP nomination fight.

For more than a month, the leading conservative talkers in the country have broadcast identical messages in an effort to demonize Mike Huckabee and John McCain. If you’ve tuned in at all to Rush, Sean, Savage, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager, and two dozen others you’ve heard a consistent drum beat of hostility toward Mac and Huck. As always, led by Rush Limbaugh (who because of talent and seniority continues to dominate the medium) the talk radio herd has ridden in precisely the same direction, insisting that McCain and Huckabee deserve no support because they’re not “real conservatives.” A month ago, the angry right launched the slogan that Mike Huckabee is a “pro-life liberal.” More recently, after McCain’s energizing victory in New Hampshire, they trotted out the mantra that the Arizona Senator (with a life-time rating for his Congressional voting record of 83% from the American Conservative Union) is a “pro-war liberal.”

Well, the two alleged “liberals,” McCain and Huckabee just swept a total of 63% of the Republican vote in deeply conservative South Carolina. Meanwhile, the two darlings of talk radio -- Mitt Romney and, to a lesser extent, Fred Thompson—combined for an anemic 31% of the vote.

How conservative was the electorate that cast ballots on Saturday (in a big, enthusiastic turnout despite inclement weather)? Exit polls showed 69% of GOP voters described themselves as “conservative” (as opposed to “liberal” or “moderate.”) Among those self-styled conservatives, an overwhelming 61% went for Mac and Huck; only 35% for Mitt and Fred).

The exit polls even sorted out voters who described themselves as “VERY conservative” –a group that represented a full 34% of the primary day electorate. If any segment of the public should have been influenced by all the apocalyptic shouting about “the end of conservatism” if Huckabee or McCain led a national ticket and defined a new direction for the GOP, it would have been these folks. Among “Very Conservative” voters, however, Huckabee won handily (with 41%). Again, the Huck-and-Mac duo, representing talk radio’s two designated villains, swept 60% of the “Very Conservative” voters in very conservative South Carolina while Mitt and Fred combined for only 38% (22% for Thompson, 16% for Romney).

In other words, even among the most right wing segment of the South Carolina electorate, talk radio failed – and failed miserably – in efforts to destroy and discredit Huckabee and McCain.
And here's Medved with a message I've pumped up on this page:

Heading into Florida (on January 29th) we need to acknowledge that one of four remaining contenders will almost certainly head the Republican ticket. He (whoever he turns out to be) will need a united party and a revived, renewed conservative coalition.
Captain Ed disagrees with a lot of what Medved has to say, but he adds this:

In my opinion, the tone of this primary has strayed unnecessarily into negative attacks on valuable members of our own team. Instead of focusing on positive aspects of a favored candidate, too often our advocates have opted to seize on any criticism of others and make that their main message....

It has led to what I call Ultimatum Politics -- where people start to demand that either their specific candidate gets nominated or they refuse to participate in the general election. That results from overcranked partisanship clouding mature judgment. In a general election, voters have to make a choice, and as Ronald Reagan warned, it's better to support a candidate with whom one agrees on 70% of the issues rather than allow a 30% candidate to prevail instead. Demonizing all of the other options (which Alan Keyes literally did at the CLC in October) paralyzes a political party.
I've made the same basic point here, perhaps not as smoothly as the Captain. I certainly hope those with more blogging stature than mine are able to rouse the angry conservatives into some clear-minded thinking. We need to unite!