Politics & Policy

The Right Guy?

A Republican future with McCain?

It’s looking more and more like John McCain could be the Republican nominee. What can he do to rally conservatives? Can he?

Mona Charen

McCain’s phosphorescent patriotism (including his sacrifice for the country) has always been his greatest selling point and will continue to win respect and affection from conservatives as the general election approaches. Though admittedly he has a sense of humor, he has delighted in sticking his finger in our eyes on many occasions. Also, his ferocious defensiveness about his own honor often takes the shape of impugning the motives of those who differ with him.

On domestic policy he is not a conservative. As between Romney and McCain, Republican voters in Florida were asked to choose between a recent convert (if you will) and a false flag. Take abortion: McCain has touted his Senate record, but that misses his tone and affect. In 2000 he told The San Francisco Chronicle that “certainly in the short term or even in the long term I would not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade.” He backed off after conservatives howled, but the same lack of commitment on the question was revealed in his support of stem cell research.

McCain/Feingold was an assault on the constitution. The immigration bill was utterly heedless of the concerns of the majority of the conservative electorate. Yes, he’s been fine on spending, but let the New York Times show a little ankle and McCain gets weak in the knees.

On foreign policy, McCain remains a most admirable hawk. All honor to him for being right about the surge. But then there are weird failures of understanding on other matters. McCain believes Bush wasted seven years by not seeking negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians sooner! You simply cannot get more conventional Washington, D.C., thinking than that.

I don’t think McCain will reach out to conservatives. He probably believes (not without some justification at this juncture) that it’s up to us to come to him. But every time I take a step in his direction, I’m reminded of some other apostasy (taxes!) and I recoil.

– Mona Charen is an NRO contributor.

Alvin S. Felzenberg

Well, the identity of the Republican nominee for president appears even more settled than it did a week ago. This time, John McCain’s win of an important primary cannot be credited to independents. A majority of Florida Republicans rallied to his banner and he appears to have run strong among most, if not all, the constituencies that comprise the Florida GOP. Barring an unforeseen change of circumstances, the Republican party will nominate John McCain for president in Minneapolis next September.

The time is at hand for both Senator McCain and conservative leaders to come to the realization that they need each other. McCain as the presumptive nominee needs to continue stressing his conservative credentials of decades standing. He also needs to let conservative leaders know that he recognizes that some of them do not look kindly upon his nomination, that he understands their reasons, and that he is willing to work with them.

Some prominent conservatives need to stop telling themselves and others that McCain, when nominated, “will have a problem with conservatives;” instead they should work with him to try to solve this problem. They should ask themselves whether they would really prefer to see a Democratic president and Congress unearth all they have achieved since Ronald Reagan led to victory a party that was once competitive in 50 states and a movement that was rapidly on the ascent.

They can expect a Clinton or an Obama administration to raise taxes, thereby reducing economic growth; they can also expect that he or she will cut — as they did in the 1990’s — defense spending, and appoint liberal, activist judges. Additionally they can be expected to use their powers of incumbency to their partisan and political advantage. This might entail restoring the equal-time provision that once governed the public airwaves. (Dennis Kucinich put the matter on the table in an early presidential-primary debate. Absent the certainty of a presidential veto, what will prevent the next Congress from restoring it?) There will also be the possibility of tax audits and possible litigation against other elements of the conservative infrastructure that Democrats have tried so hard (thus far unsuccessfully) to replicate. Believing in “right-wing conspiracies,” they can be expected to justify such measures in the public interest. (Be afraid, be very afraid.)

Someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is not your enemy, Ronald Reagan reminded us. McCain’s voting record is considerably better than that. Before Barry Goldwater said “go to work,” he first advised conservatives to “grow up.” The moment is at hand for Senator McCain and conservatives to acknowledge what conservative voters had repeatedly made clear: That they need each other.

Alvin S. Felzenberg, a veteran of two Republican presidential administrations and an early supporter of Ronald Reagan, is author of the forthcoming Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.

Victor Davis Hanson

I pray that John McCain can rally the base — since whatever anger conservatives hold toward him should pale in comparison to the specter of 16 years of the Clintons or Barack Obama’s European-style democratic socialism (with John Edwards as a possible attorney general). His acceptance speech seemed designed to do just that by references to tough judges, magnanimity shown his rivals, the evocation of conservatism, and a promise to stick to its principles, and I expect that will continue.

He might also:

‐ 1. Either overtly or privately assure conservatives that his vice presidential pick will be a base conservative — someone, for example, like Fred Thompson. A possibility at a future date would be to consider the arch-rival Romney (in the manner that Reagan selected the younger bitter rival “voodoo economics” George Bush) as a VP candidate (especially key, given McCain’s age and Romney’s robustness).

‐ 2. Drop the names of the sorts of Cabinet appointments he might make — Rudy Giuliani as attorney general, Joe Lieberman as secretary of defense, Romney as secretary of treasury, etc.

‐ 3. Meet head on with the Right media — go on with Hannity, Rush, etc., talk with National Review, etc. — and take the blows and acknowledge past differences, occasional rifts, and promise conservative principles — and do so in a gracious manner

‐ 4. Stress the common adversary, especially the far left-agenda voiced by Obama and Edwards, and the reprehensible tactics of the Clintons.

‐ 5. Seek out more piling-on with Republican-establishment endorsements, which is a real likelihood given the human propensity to align with a perceived winner. Expect Thompson to fall in line soon.

A final note: Conservatives who are skeptical of McCain should realize that their reconciliation with him should be easier than that of moderates and independents with Clinton. The former disagrees over ideology, but considers McCain a principled person and a hero; the latter have no problem with Clinton’s politics, but are quite repelled by the lack of character and principles shown by Billary.

I would expect National Review to continue with its endorsement and promotion of Mitt Romney, but also I anticipate that should McCain win, and I think that he will, NR will rally to unify behind the nominee whom the Clintons rightly fear.

– Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author, most recently, of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.

Hugh Hewitt

This looks a lot like 1968 when a centrist Nixon kept the new figure in American politics, the conservative Reagan, from getting a foothold from which the California governor could rally the conservatives. That isn’t the case in 2008, and the fact that McCain has won his first closed primary gives him a lift but not the nomination. The conversation this week, and beyond, has to be among the Republican Party’s core conservative constituency. Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani had followers for various reasons, many of them sound. But now the choice is between one of two men. Looking ahead to the fall, the prospect of three debates between Senator McCain and the phenomenon that is Senator Obama should make the GOP collectively shudder and rethink the choices that brought them here.

Senator McCain is effectively out of money, and needs the MSM to carry him over the line next week. If Romney wins 30 percent of the delegates in the nationwide hunt, he’ll be behind but still very much in the hunt. This is the year of no bounces, and a wired electorate. Anything can happen, unless the conservatives decide that all is lost and shrug their shoulders, resigned to losing two to five seats on the Supreme Court and the initiative in the war against the jihadists.

I don’t know many folks who think John McCain can carry the day in November, though if he is the nominee I will argue from start to end of every broadcast that he must win to keep the country safe and the Constitution at least somewhat moored to its original ends. But the Obamarama that is running 24/7 should give even the senator’s oldest friends pause, and conservatives nightmares.

To have a good shot at holding the White House, the GOP needs to rally to Romney and do it now, rather than asking McCain to pretend to be the conservative he isn’t, while hoping to take the sting out of the surrender of the party of Reagan to the resurrected Nixon wing of the GOP. We can’t afford another 1976 or 1996 in 2008.

– Hugh Hewitt worked for Richard Nixon from 1978 to 1980, and again as the executive director of the Nixon library. He hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show, is the executive editor of Townhall.com and blogs at HughHewitt.com.

John J. Pitney Jr.

John McCain’s advisers may be telling him to rally conservatives by chanting “Reagan, Reagan, Reagan.” Certainly, he can cite issues on which his stands sound Reaganesque, or times when the Gipper said nice things about him. But there are three reasons why such an approach would fail.

First, being a Reaganite is like being a lady: if you have to say you are, you ain’t. The more urgently a politician invokes Reagan to prove conservative credentials, the more skeptical conservatives will become.

Second, Reagan has been out of office for nearly 20 years. As Bob Dole learned in 1996, nostalgia is a poor way to win an election, especially against a Clinton. What’s more, by overdoing references to the past, McCain would remind people that he would be the oldest man ever to become president.

Third, it would contradict Reagan’s own outlook. For him, politics was about the future, not the past. As he said in his 1992 address to the Republican national convention “Who among us would trade America’s future for that of any other country in the world? And who could possibly have so little faith in our America that they would trade our tomorrows for our yesterdays?” The challenge for Senator McCain is to embrace Reagan’s spirit without using his name as a protective talisman.

– John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Ed Whelan

Justice John Paul Stevens turns 88 in April, and one or two more liberal justices are candidates for retirement over the next four years. Thus, the next president will likely have the historic opportunity to create a working majority on the Supreme Court that will respect genuine principles of judicial restraint and that will restore the Court to its proper role in our constitutional system-most especially, by ending the Court’s power grab on abortion policy.

If John McCain wins the Republican nomination, he needs to rally conservatives by showing that he understands the importance of making strong Supreme Court nominations, and of using all the capital necessary to win the confirmation fights. Words matter. It would be good to hear lots of strong praise for Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, as well as a promise to defeat the unprecedented spectacle of a Democratic filibuster. Personnel also matters. McCain needs to surround himself with top advisers (including those drawn from other campaigns, like Ted Olson) who have a demonstrated commitment to judicial conservatism — and to shed those who don’t — and he needs to select a vice presidential candidate (Fred Thompson?) whose record is also strong.

– Edward Whelan is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and is a regular contributor to NRO’s “Bench Memos” blog . His views are his own only and are not intended to represent the views of the organization with which he is affiliated.

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