The switch in constituencies that Senator John McCain is attempting is not quite as wrenching as that of Mitt Romney, but it’s close. The former Massachusetts governor has gone from wooing voters in one of the most liberal states in the nation in 2002 to trying to win rock-ribbed conservatives in the GOP presidential primaries in 2008. McCain has gone from playing to independent voters and the national press in 2000 to trying to win the regular Republican voters who eluded him eight years ago.
Making this kind of shift is perilous, as McCain has discovered in the early going in his presidential campaign. He is now getting perhaps the harshest media coverage of any of the major presidential candidates, while conservatives have not yet significantly warmed to him. This dynamic has left McCain stalled, trailing Rudy Giuliani in the national horserace and likely to get passed for second if Fred Thompson announces.
But the political obituaries his embittered ex-lovers in the media are itching to write for him would be premature. The rest of McCain’s campaign — which he officially launched in New Hampshire yesterday — is likely to be characterized by a dissonance: Whatever turns off the press and prompts it to write about how much he is hurting himself will probably only help him among Republican voters.
That is certainly true of the war in Iraq. While the press makes it out to be a major liability, it may in truth be the senator’s chief asset among Republican voters. McCain is no less a “truth teller” than he was in 2000. But what he’s telling the truth about — the consequences of defeat in Iraq and the need to try to win there — is something the press does not want to hear. Republican voters, on the other hand, can only be favorably impressed to see McCain’s famous resoluteness applied to a cause much more noble and important than, say, campaign-finance reform.
For Republicans, McCain’s crusade for his campaign-finance legislation still casts a shadow over his candidacy. The law was foolish and in large part unconstitutional, but — like many of McCain’s apostasies from conservative orthodoxy, most dating to the period immediately after the 2000 election — it is also not such a live issue anymore (outside of the courts). He voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001, but now says he favors extending them. His biggest current disagreement with conservatives is on immigration, where he has been a leading champion of an amnesty and guest-worker program. He would do himself — and the nation’s debate on the issue — much good if he instead endorsed serious efforts to enforce the immigration laws.
Even with all the blemishes, McCain has a more consistent conservative record than Giuliani or Romney. He hasn’t had to reverse himself recently on abortion or the Second Amendment (although he once agitated for more gun control at the margins). This is an abiding strength of his candidacy.
Yet there is serious resistance to him among Republicans. McCain’s principal task over the next few months should not be to get better press clippings — or to win back independents, who will not matter much until the fall of 2008 — but to win over some of those resisters.
What is most important is for McCain to keep doing what he has been doing on the Iraq War. As Jonathan Martin points out in The Politico, McCain’s favorability rating among conservatives in New Hampshire has gone from 49 to 66 percent between February and April; his unfavorability rating has gone from 35 to 19. These are the voters who can make McCain the next nominee of his party.
He should be going out of his way to bury the hatchet with conservatives over the disputes of the past. It may be that many conservative activists are unreachable to him, but he would benefit merely by making a show of reaching out to them (for example, appearing at their events). No matter how much personal disdain McCain may have for them (and vice versa), they are an important part of the party he seeks to lead.
He should be more specific about his plans for expanding the military and for taxes. It is bizarre that in a race in which the support of conservatives is so important, none of the top candidates has a compelling tax-reform plan.
McCain should emphasize his fighting patriotism. This is the side of McCain that was evident in his rousing VMI speech, in which he harshly criticized Democrats for their irresponsibility and defeatism on the war. Instead, yesterday, he sounded irenic notes about bipartisan compromise. Republican voters aren’t in the mood to be compromising with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi at the moment, when they are declaring the Iraq War lost and doing all they can to lose it.
Finally, he should never miss his former friends in the media. Republican presidents get elected without them.
Just Can’t Get Enough? Ramesh Ponnuru interviewed John McCain last month. Rich Lowry hails his “tragic courage.” Mark Levin says he’s not conservative. Kathryn Lopez just wants you to give the surge a chance.