Politics & Policy

McCain Estrangement Syndrome

Are some of the senator's supporters trying to drive conservatives away?

Are John McCain’s supporters trying to drive conservatives away from their candidate?

Senator McCain is the inevitable Republican presidential nominee. He is headed, though, for a defeat of McGovernite dimensions if he can’t sway conservatives to get behind his candidacy. For their part, conservatives don’t want McCain, but even less do they want to spend the next four-to-eight years saying “President Obama,” let alone reliving history with another President Clinton.

In short, there are the makings here for a modus vivendi, however grudging. Yet, McCain’s admirers appear to think belittling the senator’s good-faith opponents is the way to go. Theirs is a case of the pot calling the kettle “deranged” — and it will prove duly futile.

Put yourselves in my shoes for a moment. I have not supported Sen. McCain. I admire his perseverance and love of country. Still, I don’t think he is a committed conservative, and his penchant for demonizing all opposition is, to me, extremely off-putting. Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, there’s nothing delusional about that.

In fact, as between the two of us, it’s McCain’s supporters who are deluding themselves. I take them at their word, for example, that a hallmark of the senator’s politics is his tenacity on matters of principle. Consequently, I am skeptical of his assurances that he would appoint conservative judges who will apply rather than create law. Why? Because he has a recent, determined history of beseeching federal courts to disregard the First Amendment in furtherance of a dubious campaign-finance scheme in which he believes passionately. Conservative judges would (and have) rejected this scheme, just as they would (and have) rejected another signature McCain position: the extension of Geneva Convention protections for jihadists.

Now, the appointment of conservative judges is a crucial issue — one McCain posits as central to why we should prefer him to Obama and Clinton. Thus supporters breezily wave off such concerns, maintaining that McCain both promises there will be no issue-based litmus tests for judicial nominees and has conservatives of impeccable legal credentials advising him.

But for me to conclude McCain would surely appoint conservative judges, I also have to believe campaign-finance and the Geneva Convention weren’t all that big a deal to him after all — a possibility that runs counter to everything McCain’s fans tell us about his fidelity to principle. He’s fought tirelessly for years, in the teeth of blistering criticism, to establish campaign-finance regulations, and I’m now supposed to believe he’ll just shrug his shoulders and meekly name judges who’ll torpedo the whole enterprise — all in the name of upholding a judicial philosophy I’m not even sure he grasps? How exactly is it deranged to have my doubts?

And, of course, that’s not all. McCain points out that he supported the Supreme Court nominations of Justices Roberts and Alito; but he blocked the appointment of Pentagon general counsel Jim Haynes to the Fourth Circuit, and his “Gang of 14” deal was the death knell for several other Bush judicial nominations. He says he’s learned his lesson on immigration “reform,” but he won’t rule out signing the disastrous McCain/Kennedy bill if it were to cross his desk in the Oval Office. He now says he opposes the Law of the Sea Treaty and its assault on American sovereignty, but he used to be an ardent supporter. He told National Review he didn’t foresee pushing for further campaign-finance legislation, but that was when he was unsuccessfully urging the federal courts to impose further restrictions on speech — and, as president, he would have the power to appoint aggressive Federal Election Commission regulators. He points to his long pro-life record, but his campaign-finance crusade included a years-long effort to suppress the pro-life message, and he supported government funding of stem-cell research that called for destroying human embryos. He claims to be for small government but he contemplates government regulation of everything from light bulbs to professional sports, even as his immigration proposals would crush state health-care and education budgets. While some of McCain’s supporters claim he has consistently opposed tax increases, his Kyoto-style proposal on global warming would actually result in the most enormous tax-increase in American history (while doing little, if anything, about climate change); and, relatedly, though McCain now says he supports making the Bush tax cuts permanent, he was one of their most vigorous opponents.

To be clear, I have never argued that no true conservative could support McCain — a commonly repeated strawman in the “derangement” indictment. The GOP field featured many accomplished candidates, but it was not a grand set of choices for the Right. The candidate most wedded to our orthodoxy, Sen. Fred Thompson, was late to the race and never really got out of the starting block. Mayor Rudy Giuliani (whom I originally supported) was conservative in many ways but, like McCain, listed serial apostasies in his ledger. The conservatism of Gov. Mitt Romney (to whom I later gravitated) was, in several particulars, of recent vintage, spawning concerns about his authenticity. Gov. Mike Huckabee, a peerless advocate for life and other core social-conservative causes, sounds more like a Democrat on the economy, governed like one when it came to taxes and pardons, and often seems at sea on national-security issues.

Conservatives had to pick someone. For all his flaws, no candidate could match Sen. McCain’s singular leadership in preventing an American defeat in Iraq. None came close to his heroism in service to the United States. And, in two decades in the Senate, he has sided with conservatives on about four out of every five votes — a rate that cannot camouflage the gravity of his departures but ought not be dismissed out of hand either. I found at least three of the other candidates more appealing than the self-professed “maverick.” That, however, does not mean it was irrational for other conservatives to come to a different conclusion — and though some now prescribe mere opposition to McCain as a form of febrile lunacy, I never suggested otherwise.

So, when McCain became inevitable on “Super Tuesday,” I resigned myself to reality in short order. That, I’ve always thought, is democracy in America: You do your best to persuade, you hope to win, but you don’t take your ball and go home if you lose.

There remains a rational case to continue rejecting McCain. We are, after all, electing a government, not just a president. I strongly suspect the conservative movement and Republicans in Congress would perform better if set against a Democrat president than in an uneasy alliance with McCain. Thus it’s not a simple matter of determining whether McCain is superior to Obama or Clinton; the question is whether he is so much better that we should tolerate the heavy cost of a movement and a party less disposed to fight a President McCain on the several flawed policy preferences he shares with Democrats.

That’s far from a no-brainer. But for me, the question must be resolved in McCain’s favor because of the war. Our troops in harm’s way deserve the best commander-in-chief we have it in our power to give them; the American people deserve the most vigilant protection against a rabid enemy we have it in our power to give them. For these purposes, McCain is measurably superior to Obama and Clinton. That doesn’t mean my reservations are any less real; they are just comparatively (and barely) less important.

By Wednesday, then, I was resigned to the senator’s being not just the nominee but our nominee. On Thursday, when Gov. Mitt Romney graciously stepped aside, I was glad. I don’t see myself ever being a McCain enthusiast, but by Thursday afternoon, I’d even gotten to the point of offering his campaign what I hoped was constructive advice on taking a leadership role in the current debate over intelligence reform.

But I’m no longer so sure. McCain’s supporters continue to mock thoughtful, good-faith critics as “deranged.” The principal objects of scorn are such conservative talk-radio icons as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity. A number of those folks are friends of mine, and, indeed, I appeared on a couple of their programs in the run-up to Super Tuesday. The discussion wasn’t “deranged.” I’m not deranged, and neither are they.

The McCain forces assert that ordinary Republican voters are roundly rejecting us naysayers. Really? That claim is even more demonstrably false today than it was a week ago.

Before last Tuesday, when he became inevitable, about two out of every three Republicans were voting against McCain. This past Saturday, despite having outlasted all meaningful opposition, McCain was humiliated when three out of every four Republicans cast ballots against him in the states of Washington (which he somehow “won”) and Kansas (where he was drubbed). To add insult to insult, McCain was also defeated in Louisiana by the likable but hopeless Huckabee, whose campaign at this point is an eccentricity. For Huck, that is; for the rest of us, it is a window on smoldering dissent — and a harbinger of catastrophe to come when one factors in the Republicans who are staying home while Democrats stampede to the polls in eye-popping numbers.

McCain’s only chance, a slim one, is to galvanize the very people his acolytes seem bent on antagonizing. That means allaying deep-seated conservative doubt. A powerful senator not exactly famous for listening to his detractors will need some convincing on that score — some understanding that, as Saturday’s primaries fairly screamed, he’s got a lot more work to do.

McCain’s fans do their candidate no favors by telling him the only people who can save his candidacy are unhinged.

And they do themselves no favors. There’s a battle on the horizon for the future of conservatism. On one side are those who revere unchanging principles, especially a healthy suspicion of government. On the other are those who would refine old principles under the guise of adapting them to new situations — those apt to see government more as a force for good than a necessary evil.

Sen. McCain runs in the latter circles. There, principally, is where he finds his conservative support. If he allows his campaign to become a referendum, pitting the tried-and-true against self-consciously evolved strains of “compassionate” and “national greatness” conservatism, November will look an awful lot like Saturday night.

Andrew C. McCarthy is an NRO contributing editor. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization.


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