Sunday, February 10, 2008

The McCain Mutiny

Now that the nomination of John McCain as the Republican candidate for president is all but certain, his long history of riling conservatives must somehow be reconciled with his now pressing need for conservative support in the general election. From McCain's perspective, garnering that support must seem to be a simple matter of showing conservatives they have nowhere else to go. The conservative situation, on the other hand, is analogous to last call at the bar: eyeing the homely barfly so unceremoniously dismissed at 10 PM, but now trying desperately to find some comeliness in that craggy, bellicose exterior. Desire tends to trump reality.

In fact, to some types of conservatives, McCain might be a centerfold. As I pointed out in an earlier post, conservatism is not a monolith, but only a loose coalition of various anti-liberal sentiments that seems to be getting looser all the time. Conservatives who place national defense above all else might look at McCain's personal bio and Congressional record and see something exciting. There are also those conservatives who prefer McCain's open-borders immigration sentiments, particularly those among the country-club Republicans who make a lot of money from cheap labor.

Certainly, the prospects of a Democratic administration is galvanizing at least those conservatives McCain has not already irretrievably alienated. For example, the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger is taking the line that conservatives need to grow up and get in line for McCain. (Another way to grow up, by the way, would be to quit patronizing unhappy conservatives by using adolescent insults, but those who write bylines for the Wall Street Journal might have to sacrifice some of their catchiest phrases.)

So, exactly what grievances do (many) conservatives have toward McCain? Here's a summary compiled by National Review's Mark Levin. For starters, there was McCain-Feingold, the famous bill for campaign finance "reform" (a liberal worship-word which implies that change is by definition always for the better), which many conservatives believe is a direct (and successful) attack on the First Amendment. Even McCain's highly-touted pro-life positions have been compromised in order to defend McCain-Feingold's clammy grasp: he filed an amicus brief on behalf of the prosecution against Wisconsin Right-to-Life when he didn't need to get involved at all. I mean, what's a child's life next to his pet legislative achievement?

Then there was McCain-Kennedy, the immigration bill designed to make legals out illegals. Then there was McCain-Lieberman, a ham-fisted response to the dubious science of global warmism. The general rule is that if a piece of legislation has McCain's name attached to it, it's probably a calculated thumb in the eye against conservatives. And I use the word "calculated" to stipulate that McCain's strategy has been to play to the mainstream news media, who reward his solicitousness by throwing flower petals in his path as he runs against other Republicans. (Expect this to change once he starts running against Democrats.)

I could go on, but the gist is clear: McCain deserves conservative accolades the same way Benedict Arnold deserves a Congressional Medal of Honor.

The argument that McCain deserves our support because he is still more conservative than either Obama or Clinton may have merit, but it's hardly as simple as that. Let's stipulate that McCain's record is basically conservative but getting less and less so (as measured by American Conservative Union, who keeps track of such things). Let's grant that he is more conservative than any Democrat likely to run against him. Problem is, that's only part of the story. What is the desired goal of an election, from a conservative point of view? If it were just to elect the more conservative candidate, then it's easy: vote for McCain, quick, while he's still more conservative than not.

But it isn't that easy. You have to keep your eye on the ball: the desired goal is to get conservative policies enacted and to consign liberal policies to the municipal treatment plant. If liberal policies are championed by a Republican president, will other Republicans oppose them? Or will they instead roll over and play dead? Recent history suggests the latter. Particularly on federal spending and the growth of big government, but on other issues as well, George W. Bush has betrayed conservative ideals over and over again, while his party has stood by largely mute and powerless to stop him. The issue, then, is whether conservative policies are more or less likely to be enacted under a President McCain, or whether Republicans will be more effectively conservative in opposition to a Democratic president.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter how conservative a president happens to be. What matters is his willingness to fight for conservative principles when the going gets tough. McCain is tough indeed, but at this point it's more reasonable to conclude that this toughness will be employed not against liberals, but against the conservatives whose support he needs today. McCain likes to play to the liberal media. He seems to enjoy it. What makes anyone think that being president will change this?

There's a bigger issue involved, as well. As I have pointed out, the Republican Party leadership is too often tempted to come to its own terms with Democrats on issue after issue, leaving the rest of the conservative coalition out in the rain. After all, they smugly ask, where will the conservatives go? That's a practical question, and deserves a practical answer. Conservatives have three weapons: their voices, their money, and their votes. If you want to motivate Republicans to act like conservatives, rewarding them when they act like liberals just might be the wrong approach. Let's try denying them our money and votes and see if that works.

Reasonable folks may differ. My good friend at Griffin Trek takes a different tack. Read what he has to say, and come to your own conclusion. As for me, McCain will not be getting my vote this fall; I will probably vote for the Constitutional Party's candidate. I think the Republican Party needs help this year, and the best way to provide it is a little tough love.

No comments: