Democrats think they have John McCain in a trap. He is going to have to spend the time immediately following his clinching of the nomination trying to win over Republican voters to his right. That’s time he won’t spend appealing to independent voters. He could even alienate those independents while courting conservatives.
McCain should prove this theory wrong, and he should do it starting at CPAC tomorrow. There are two temptations to resist. The first is for McCain to spend the bulk of the speech burnishing his conservative credentials. He has tried doing that, and a lot of conservatives are still left cold. Besides, what they want to hear isn’t that McCain has a conservative voting record but that he will fight for conservative ideas. The second temptation is to provoke bitter-end conservative resistance and triangulate against it. That would be a dangerous strategy, one that could make fence-sitting conservatives turn against him.
What McCain should do instead is to take the fight to the Democrats, explaining why he’s against Harry Reid’s defeatism, Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan, Nancy Pelosi’s obstructionism on intelligence gathering, Barack Obama’s tax increases, and even Dennis Kucinich’s Department of Peace. Conservatives know that McCain can be a tough political combatant. They want to see him turn those skills on the Democrats. They’re tired of being on the defensive. Even McCain’s opponents in the CPAC crowd will have to applaud as he lays into the Democrats.
There is a risk of being seen as too partisan. But he is safer following this course than trying to pretend to be more conservative than he is. At some point this year he is going to have to make the case against the Democrats — respectfully and civilly, of course, but also forcefully. Why not start now?