Politics & Policy

Right Guy?

Can John McCain mend fences?

Somewhere in the week between John McCain’s win in the New Hampshire primary and Mitt Romney’s victory in Michigan, national and state presidential polls underwent a dramatic shift. Republicans across the country appeared to be trying to coalesce around McCain and end the uncertainty about the GOP nominee once and for all.

The race could be aptly described now as Romney’s fight to prevent this from happening. His victory in Michigan was the first step toward this end. The next steps will be difficult and complicated, and Romney may need help from other candidates such as Mike Huckabee.

#ad#From McCain’s perspective, the challenge is different. There can be no more Michigans for him, or the Republican movement in his direction will end. The root cause of both McCain’s Michigan loss and New Hampshire win is identical. In each state, McCain prevailed among those who chose their candidate based on “personal qualities” — 48 percent in New Hampshire and 41 percent in Michigan. He lost badly among those who chose based on “issues,” taking only 25 and 23 percent, respectively. The difference between victory and defeat was that New Hampshirites voted personal qualities over issues — 52 to 44 percent. Michiganders stuck to the issues, 58 to 39 percent.

McCain can pride himself on his non-ideological coalition all he likes, but as Romney’s campaign pointed out in a memo to reporters Wednesday, this will never secure him the nomination. McCain cannot continue to lose by such large margins among Republicans who vote on issues. Self-identified Republicans in Michigan went for Romney by an incredible 14 points as he beat McCain in the open primary by 9 points.

The most ideologically minded conservatives may be a lost cause for the man who promoted McCain-Feingold, CAFE standards, and a liberalized immigration plan and has few fans on talk radio. But at the margin of McCain’s issue-deficit stands the ambivalent conservative. He likes McCain on Iraq and spending, if he knows his record. He also likes the idea that McCain might win in a general election. His strong disagreements with McCain on other issues would not necessarily preclude him from voting for the senator. If only McCain would stop antagonizing him, and start reminding him why he has supporters like Sens. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) and Sam Brownback (R., Kan.), and how he has amassed a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 82.3.

But McCain seldom does this. The “straight-talk” is often accompanied by a tin ear. As when he spoke too frankly of Michigan’s economic future, the Arizonan seems to take delight in senselessly angering whole groups of needed voters by telling them exactly what he knows they don’t want to hear. In Michigan, every time he preached the importance of extending President Bush’s tax cuts (to avoid a huge tax increase in 2011, he says), he explicitly reminded the crowds that he voted against those same tax-cuts in 2001.

If McCain stops this self-destructive behavior and instead emphasizes what he has in common with conservatives, it could help him not just in the primaries, but also if he finds himself the nominee, leading a demoralized Republican base into what promises to be a tough general election.

How receptive will conservatives be to McCain? Some not at all. Human Events went so far as to endorse Fred Thompson, mostly hoping to prevent McCain from getting the nomination. The magazine added to its message by publishing a top-ten list of McCain’s “class-warfare” arguments against tax cuts.

Others are less averse, though — and in some cases surprisingly so. If any conservative has reasons for hating McCain, it is probably Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). That’s what Monday’s Washington Post article said, anyway. In addition to arguing against tax cuts — for a time even defending the “Death Tax” — McCain and his staff went out of their way to tie Norquist to Jack Abramoff’s shady dealings.

In an interview with National Review Online this week, Norquist called the Post piece “silly,” and said he would have no problem personally endorsing McCain in the general election, especially if the senator signs his group’s pledge not to raise taxes. (McCain and Fred Thompson are the only GOP candidates not to do so this cycle.) McCain, who signed the pledge while in the U.S. Senate (and has kept it) and again during his 2000 presidential run, has only been at odds with the anti-tax crowd since his rhetoric against Bush’s tax plan turned them against him in 2000. (It would take him under five minutes to print it up off the Internet, sign it, and fax it in.)

“Without even having to apologize for his Prodigal Son period on taxes,” Norquist said, “McCain’s signature on the pledge would tell everyone, ‘I’m back on the ranch.’” He asserted that if McCain takes tax-increases off the table, conservatives can feel safer about him as president because it would force Democrats in Congress to back away from inserting tax-hikes into must-pass bills. “You either enter with your force-field up, or you’re a sitting duck, and they’ll throw darts at you and take shots on goal until you give up.” This “force-field” worked wonders last year even for President Bush — weakened as he is by chronic unpopularity and his lame-duck status — when Democrats backed away from raising taxes as part of a temporary reform to the Alternative Minimum Tax.

As with his tax stance, McCain has gone off the reservation in the last eight years on a number of issues and angered conservatives. But Norquist, also a life member and board member of the National Rifle Association, suggested that McCain, despite his recent flirtations with gun control, could reassure gun owners by asserting that there are already enough gun-control laws and that he would not sign any further ones. “He can say that gun-control doesn’t work,” Norquist suggested, “and that concealed carry permits have made Americans safer.”

Although McCain’s voting record is mostly pro-life, he suffers a deficit of confidence with the right-to-life movement, in part because of ambiguous and contradictory statements about Roe v. Wade. And McCain lost badly among pro-lifers in Michigan, 39 to 25 percent. But he could change things by reaching out to them next week and addressing the March for Life in Washington, D.C. Brownback is reportedly urging him to do this, and to reaffirm for the base his commitment to defending the Right to Life.

John McCain will never be the candidate of conservatives. But he cannot win if he ignores them or treats them like the enemy. And at the margin, he would lose fewer of their votes — and ease some of the fears that are uniting them against him at all costs — if he made the effort to show that he is not their enemy, either.

– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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