I know with McCain’s victories tonight CPAC is becoming stale news, but I do think it’s worth noting that, against all odds, McCain was received very well there. When he announced he was appearing at CPAC, a number of people weighed in — wisely, I think — saying that this was a bad idea for McCain. He was loudly booed at the conference last year and his appearance this year had the makings of a potential disaster if he received that kind of treatment again, especially since the media was clinging to the narrative that McCain was struggling to nail down the conservative base.
The fact is that McCain was well-received and, for the most part, got very good press out of the event. The media seemed happy to seize on the themes 1) the tensions between McCain and the base were overexaggerated as a function of horserace politics or 2) McCain’s acceptance by the base showed the waning influence of talk radio, Ann Coulter and all the other supposed conservative opinion makers. (Clarence Page’s mostly favorable column about McCain was pretty typical.) I think the first point is probably true and the second point is debatable. Either way, press coverage focusing on those two narratives was vastly preferable to the idea that the base hates McCain.
But it’s also worth noting that part of the reason the media didn’t play up the base-hates-McCain meme is because it’s not necessarily true, despite the number of prominent conservatives that spoke out against him. Even prominent conservative activist Grover Norquist – who’s also a longtime McCain nemesis (owing to tensions over L’affaire Abramoff) – has been publicly saying nice things about McCain. In a recent Newsweek interview Norquist even said, “I believe conservatives, one, are warming to McCain. You certainly saw a good response at CPAC.”
The bottom line is that McCain took a big risk appearing at CPAC, and it seems to have helped more than it hurt. McCain will need to continue to hear out conservatives, but having survived CPAC, he’s best served following Ramesh and Kate’s advice to take the fight to Democrats, thereby defining his conservative values in opposition to his Democratic counterparts.