Conservatives are in a jam of their own making in allowing liberal Republican John McCain to become the party’s frontrunner — and it’s up to them to fix it. That’s the view of Mary Matalin, Republican insider, strategist, and former Fred Thompson supporter. There’s still a chance for conservatives to rally and make Mitt Romney the GOP nominee — but time is running out. In an interview with National Review Online, Matalin pulled no punches, arguing that, on Super Tuesday, “A vote for Huckabee is a vote for McCain.”
Matalin admits that Romney still faces an uphill battle against McCain for the Republican nomination. But his primary obstacle is the sinking Mike Huckabee, whose presence in the race Matalin finds questionable. “Rich Lowry has said that Huckabee has a man crush on McCain,” Matalin said. “If Huckabee got out, Romney could win Georgia, Missouri, and probably Tennessee and Alabama. He could pick up a chunk of California, and then it would be a delegate race.” Huckabee clearly can’t win, so why is he in the race? “Whether it’s a man crush or the promise of a job — I don’t know what his motive is, but it seems to me that it could be less than pure.”
Matalin added that voters need to understand the ramifications of votes for Huckabee. “It’s possible to get out the message that a vote for Huckabee is a vote for McCain. After all, Huckabee supporters are not McCain supporters,” she said.
When asked whether conservative antipathy toward McCain is justified, given that most of his record falls within the GOP mainstream, Matalin explained why she thinks McCain is bad for economic and social conservatives.
“I don’t think he rests comfortably anywhere that conservatives would call home today. If it was true yesterday, it’s not true for tomorrow’s issues. The ones that he has chosen to take a lead on are the ones that conservatives either don’t prioritize or flat-out loathe,” she said. “We are for tax reform, for aggressive immigration reform, for a traditional reading of the Geneva convention. We’re not for terrorist rights, we’re not against corporations, and we don’t believe that man is melting the earth.”
The prospect of McCain as the Republican nominee highlights a major missed opportunity for conservatives this season, lamented Matalin — who had been supporting Fred Thompson’s ill-fated candidacy.
“You reap what you sow. We like to applaud ourselves as the party of ideas and principle, but we turn out to be the party of performance art. All we did was gripe about Fred’s performance skills as opposed to his principles and policies — and . . . here we are,” Matalin said. “We let the perfect — as defined by performance — be the enemy of the great.” Fred Thompson would have been “a great candidate, a great standard bearer for conservatism, and a great president,” Matalin said, and his candidacy’s failure could mean that “we’re going to have to burn down the village.”
The rejection of Thompson suggests to Matalin that there is a larger problem — that conservatives who once prided themselves on their autonomy and ideological purity might have buckled to outside pressure. “So yeah, not only do we miss Fred, we’re going to pay for letting non-conservatives define and dictate who will be a good candidate,” she said.
Matalin recognizes that Mitt Romney is not dead yet, and is quick to extol the former governor. “The guy has become an increasingly good candidate. He’s not a political animal — he’s an executive, an analyst, a leader,” she says of Romney. “He’s not an instinctive politician — but his political skills have gotten increasingly better. More importantly, he’s got some real grit and he’s a class act. His last debate performance was the best of any candidate in either party this entire campaign.”
Matalin also notes that the emergence of economic issues as a driving factor in the campaign benefits Romney. “He’s way better than McCain — head and shoulders better — on economic policy,” she said.
Despite Romney’s comparative lack of foreign-policy experience, Matalin observes, he might be better than McCain even on that issue, the signature one for the Arizona senator. “Iraq is not the beginning and end of all things, and all of these candidates were equally good — okay, Huckabee wasn’t — on the global war on terror.” Matalin thinks Romney has “been better on Iran, China, North Korea, and Russia” because “he has a global view, and he gets the intersection of economic security and national security.”
But Romney will certainly need to rally today. Mike Huckabee’s continued presence in the race will only help the dubiously conservative McCain hold Romney at bay, she argues. Unless, of course, southern social conservatives decide against casting their vote for an also-ran and support the last viable conservative instead.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.