The percentage of Americans who consider themselves Republicans has plummeted. Young people voted for John Kerry and have not become more conservative since 2004. Democrats think they just might get a filibuster-proof Senate capable of enacting national health care and confirming liberal justices to the Supreme Court in 2009. So many conservatives have decided that now is a good time to turn on each other in a fight as bitter as it is counterproductive.
Partisans of John McCain say his conservative critics are “deranged.” They say those critics are merely trying to get attention for themselves. The talk-show hosts who dislike McCain, they say, are irrelevant — when they are not saying those hosts will cost Republicans the election and thus endanger the national defense.
The critics, meanwhile, say McCain’s nomination will ruin the party. They say he is not a conservative — and some of them go so far as to argue that neither is anyone who supports him.
Enough. It is not “deranged” to have concerns about McCain’s positions and his political style. Nor is it a betrayal of conservative principles to support him, especially now that he is the all-but-certain Republican nominee. Conservatives can reach differing views of McCain in good faith. Each camp needs to accept that truth.
Most Republican voters have taken a sensible view of this question. A Gallup poll released yesterday showed that nearly half of them would have preferred someone else as the nominee. (Us, too.) But most Republicans, and most conservatives, nonetheless have a favorable view of McCain.
Other conservatives are trying to play a more constructive role than the feuders. They want McCain to move rightward — they have compiled lists of suggestions, and sometimes demands — while conservatives reconcile themselves to him. We’re not sure either side will or should budge much. McCain is not going to embrace drilling in the Alaskan reserve, but there is no reason conservatives should stop thinking he is wrong, or supporting congressmen who act on that thought.
There are, on the other hand, areas where McCain can modify his approach in a way that will cheer conservatives without compromising his convictions or undermining his appeal to independent voters. Making a firmer commitment to pursue “enforcement first” on immigration would be one such way. Emphasizing some of his conservative positions, and making a credible promise to fight for them, is another.
Conservatives and McCain should neither pretend that we have no differences nor obsess about those differences. We should instead work on the common task of building a center-right majority in this election year and future ones, each appreciating that the other will play a different role in that task. So we ask the senator, and his conservative supporters and critics: Any takers?