Republicans have a decision to make: Do they want a Barry Goldwater–style bloodletting that sacrifices political victory on the altar of ideological purity? Or do they want to beat the eventual Democratic nominee come November, even if the candidate best able to do that is the dubiously conservative senior senator from Arizona, John McCain? Barry Goldwater, the patriarch of the modern American Right — who was so ideologically untainted that he came to be called “Mr. Conservative” — drove the Republican Party off the electoral cliff in 1964, winning only six states and 38 percent of the vote. John McCain, the perennial sandspur in the conservative sandal, may be precisely what it will take for a post-Dubya Republican to win the White House.
To be sure, McCain has made an art of putting conservative and Republican noses out of joint. For many, the punch list is hard to read. 2002’s McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill banned so-called “soft money,” limiting the freedom of political speech. McCain opposed President Bush’s tax cuts in both 2001 and 2003, on the grounds that they did not include cuts in spending. What’s more, he was a member of the infamous “Gang of 14”; he led the fight for an immigration-reform bill that included the much-maligned “path to citizenship” (a.k.a. “amnesty”); he has supported gunlocks and gun-show background checks; he now favors Congressional action to reduce global warming; and he once called Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance” (a statement, it must be added, that pales in comparison to Barry Goldwater’s suggestion that “every good Christian should line up and kick Jerry Fallwell’s ass”: there must be something in the Arizona water).
And yet . . . .
John McCain’s contrarian credentials are precisely the reason why he may be the GOP’s strongest candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
Consider the following: Even as Mitt Romney claimed his home state of Michigan this week, John McCain finished a competitive second in a state where 68 percent of primary voters were “mainstream Republicans” rather than the independent and moderate voters who typically form McCain’s base of support. Of the Democrats who voted in the Republican primary, 41 percent supported McCain. To some observers, McCain’s attractiveness to independents and Democrats is evidence of his weak conservative credentials. This is curious logic. Few of them would concede that Ronald Reagan’s support from “Reagan Democrats” in his 1980 and 1984 landslide victories made the Gipper less of a conservative.
In New Hampshire, as expected, McCain did well among independent voters — but he did much better than expected among mainstream Republicans. And that suggests that Republicans know instinctually what is likely true: that John McCain’s maverick pose as the GOP’s ideological eye-gouger will make him all but impervious to charges by Democrats of representing a de facto third term for the unpopular President Bush.
More than that, McCain’s war-hero status and role as legislative champion of the hugely successful “surge” in Iraq will contrast sharply with Senators Clinton and Obama’s slender and dovish foreign-policy resumes. And in presidential campaign communication, candidate “contrast” reigns supreme.
The looming question among GOP insiders is whether conservatives will begrudgingly come home to McCain. And here, too, the prospects are far from gloomy. Fiscal conservatives — like the influential Club for Growth — are more likely to have former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in their crosshairs, while McCain’s decades-long fight against wasteful spending, secretive earmarks, and expansive government redounds to his electoral favor. McCain’s track record on fiscal restraint makes him hard to tag as a big-government compassionate conservative.
A closer look at John McCain’s voting record reveals more reasons for optimism. The American Conservative Union gives McCain a lifetime rating of 83 (former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich boasts a 90 rating). And although not a “man-the-barricades” pro-lifer, McCain advocates the overturning of Roe v. Wade, calls abortion “a human tragedy,” and lived out his support for adoption when he and his second wife, Cindy, adopted their daughter Bridget, a former orphan from Bangladesh.
Clearly, though, it is John McCain’s warrior ethos that resonates most strongly with the Republican party faithful. Conservatives who remember McCain’s evisceration of left-wing “documentary” filmmaker Michael Moore during his speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention, or the standing ovation he received at a recent GOP debate after quipping that he missed Woodstock because he was “tied up at the time,” will have little doubt about who stands with them on the side of a strong military and national defense.
McCain’s most powerful political weapon may be his “authenticity,” a trait highly valued in today’s YouTube political culture. Among those in New Hampshire who valued a candidate who “says what he believes,” 53 percent supported McCain. The next closest candidate? Mitt Romney at 13 percent. And of course, it’s not just Republicans who should be worried that Americans respond well to straight talk: Democratic strategist Tad Devine told the leftist Huffington Post this week that “it is just a simple fact that should John McCain emerge as the consensus GOP nominee, he will be very formidable.”
Whether McCain has the time (and the inclination) to bind conservatives’ wounds and win them over remains to be seen. But if anyone knows how to hold out hope for a “homecoming,” surely it is the former POW–turned Arizona senator.
For all his ideological purity, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 pummeling at the polls was one of the weakest showings by a Republican presidential candidate in modern political history. Arizona senator John McCain — not a perfect conservative, but an electable one — may yet be the 2008 campaign’s Barry Goldwater, in reverse.
— Wynton C. Hall is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and author of The Right Words: Great Republican Speeches that Shaped History.