Significant portions of the Republican coalition seem to be gelling around Senator John McCain. Michael Medved likes to point out that McCain has a lifetime rating of 82 from the American Conservative Union, which is higher even than Fred Thompson, and is on par with Ron Paul. But it should be noted that McCain’s recent record per the ACU is much lower (65 in 2005) than in some of his earlier years.
McCain has a decent conservative voting record on “pro-life and free trade issues, favors private social security accounts, and opposes socialized health care. McCain also supports school vouchers, capital punishment, mandatory sentencing, and welfare reform.” He also is strong on national security and foreign policy. He has been an outspoken critic of pork barrel spending. From a conservative standpoint, that all sounds pretty good.
But McCain has another side that does not endear him to conservatives. He notably worked to pass McCain-Feingold, which restricts political speech. He was famously and contentiously at odds with conservatives over last year’s failed immigration reform bill. He worked hard to expand the grasp of the federal leviathan into your child’s classroom. McCain voted against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, a position he now suggests that he kind of regrets. (Somehow when Romney does stuff like this, it’s called flip-flopping.)
So McCain has a mixed record as far as conservatives go. He is frequently described as a moderate. You’re never going to find a perfect candidate, so it might seem OK to settle for what you can get, right?
Maybe. But McCain’s differences with the conservative orthodoxy are more a matter of style. He has worked hard over the years to develop a reputation as a maverick that is willing to stand up to the GOP establishment. When he has differed with the establishment, he has seemed to enjoy dissing them in the process. This has earned him the adulation of the media, which is considered a black mark to conservatives.
McCain is now having to play kissy-face with the conservative establishment, but you can expect that to last only as long as he finds them useful. McCain seems to view those that disagree with him as personal enemies.
One of the woes being voiced among Republicans is that McCain is the reincarnation of the 1996 Bob Dole. In both cases, you’ve got a moderate long-time senator septuagenarian that is a war hero and that is known to get testy. In both cases, there is little cause for enthusiasm. And perhaps, in both cases, he is running against a Clinton. The difference is that this time, he isn’t running against a charismatic sitting president, but against another senator with a harsh personality. Some Republicans shudder at the thought of McCain in debates with Senator Obama this fall.
Some conservatives have vociferously argued that if McCain gets the GOP nomination, it will sunder the Reagan coalition, which is necessary to victory. I’m not sure I believe that the coalition will seriously split over a McCain nomination. Some might look for other options, as they did in 1992, but I don’t see a permanent split occurring. My guess is that if McCain is nominated, most conservatives will coalesce behind him.
Besides, where else do these people have to go? And exactly how necessary are talk radio listening conservatives to victory? There are parts of the GOP coalition that would like to dump them. Can enough independents and conservative Democrats be lured to vote for a GOP candidate to negate the need for serious conservatives?
I’m not sure that a McCain candidacy is the best test case for that. Like Bob Dole, McCain represents a throwback to the past rather than a look to the future. It’s more like looking backward to the GOP of Nixon. As of today, the only remaining major GOP challenger to McCain is Romney, and he has his own problems.
Of course, if the Democrats nominate Senator Clinton, they will have their own throwback to the past, so this election could end up being a back to the future kind of thing. Do you vote for the crotchety old man Washington insider or the domineering avaricious nag Washington insider? Now, there’s a happy choice. But it’s one with which the growing army of non-ideological voters could be saddled this November. No wonder most Americans are turned off by politics.