Since I was one of the people who said it would be a good idea for John McCain to go to CPAC this year, I thought I’d take in the speech myself. Overall, I thought McCain did himself a lot of good, and most of the folks I spoke with afterwards seemed to agree.
I sat on the right of the center section, a bit more than halfway back, so I had a good sense of the room. When McCain came out, although the audience mostly cheered, there was an audible chorus of boos from what seemed like the rear of the room. Everyone was turning around to see who was booing, and no-one seemed to be able to find the folks who were actually doing it. After the speech was over and people filed out, lots of folks were trying to figure out where the booing had come from and who was doing it. A group at the right rear of the room seemed to be the consensus, but nobody could figure out who they actually were.
The point is that such booing as there was seemed to be coming from some group that intentionally planned it, rather than as a spontaneous reaction from the bulk of the crowd. Most people seemed to think the booing was out of order. In any case, as the speech went on the boos almost disappeared as spontaneous applause rose up after various topics were dealt with. There were a few more boos at the end, but nothing like what happened at the very start.
The exception was immigration–obviously the biggest problem for McCain from the crowd’s point of view. But people seemed struck by McCain’s pledge to hold off on major legislation until a “widespread consensus” had developed that the borders were secure. The phrase calmed the crowd down, but people were also just trying to figure out exactly how much of a concession it really was.
I don’t know how others will react, but the “widespread consensus” pledge seemed significant to me. My take is that McCain is finding a face-saving way-out here–a way of saying that he’ll hold off on “comprehensive reform” perhaps for most or all of a hypothetical first term. It’s going to be very tough to claim that a “widespread consensus” has developed on border control unless huge changes have been made. Again, others may differ, and this wasn’t exactly “read my lips,” but I do think the “widespread consensus” phrase serves as a fairly serious constraint on McCain’s ability to propose a comprehensive bill for quite some time.
The pledge not to sign any bills containing earmarks felt like a headline. McCain seemed categorical on this point. I took him to be saying that he would be willing to ride out a close-down-the-government game of chicken with congress over this issue. That didn’t work for the Republican congress when it went toe-to-toe with Bill Clinton. But coming at the beginning of a presidency where abolishing earmarks was a major campaign pledge, I think it just might work. This is where McCain’s ornery ways will help conservatives. McCain hates earmarks and clearly wants to provoke a showdown with congress over the issue. He is intentionally making himself honor-bound to stage a huge confrontation on this. In fact, that kind of showdown may be the only realistic way of finally abolishing earmarks. The crowd seemed to recognize that this pledge by McCain was a big deal.
Finally, I’d mention Iran, which I wrote about today (arguing that NIE notwithstanding, this is a winning issue for Republicans). The NIE report has not scared McCain off of the Iran issue. He is foregrounding it, and I think it’s going to come back big-time when McCain debates either Hillary or Obama. McCain’s speech focused on the evil intentions of Iran’s leaders, their calls for Israel’s destruction, etc. I do hope that McCain eventually gets to the larger strategic threat of a nuclear Iran–the wave of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East that would follow, how much easier that would make it to hand untraceable nukes off to terrorists, and the dangers of Iranian-abetted radical Shiite rebellions in the Gulf states.
In any case, I thought McCain did an excellent job, and notwithstanding what seemed like a faction of pre-planned booers at the start, he won over most of the crowd. Will all this be enough to unite the party? It’s too early to say. But everyone seemed to agree that McCain’s speech today was the right way to start.