The Magazine

McCain and the Conservatives

Can't they just get along?

Apr 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 29 • By FRED BARNES
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Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, took time out from his speech to the Leadership Program of the Rockies on February 24 to conduct a straw poll. His audience, assembled at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, consisted of 300 conservatives, the elite of the state's Republican party. Luntz wanted to know whom they favored in the Republican presidential race. "I do this with every crowd I talk to," he says. "As a pollster, I'm the only person who can get away with it."

Luntz asked for a show of hands. Rudy Giuliani got nearly a quarter of the crowd and came in first. Mitt Romney wasn't far behind. Newt Gingrich isn't a candidate, at least not yet, but he finished a solid third. When Luntz asked who supported John McCain, it appeared at floor level that no hands went up. The crowd gasped. "They were shocked at how badly McCain did," Luntz says. And it indeed was bad, but not quite that bad. From the podium, Luntz could see McCain hadn't been shut out. He got three votes.

That was nearly six weeks ago, at what was so far the lowest point in McCain's second bid for the presidency. His first bid, in 2000, ended bitterly. But since the Republican party tends toward a practice of primogeniture in choosing presidential nominees--that is, picking the most senior guy in line--McCain started the campaign for the 2008 nomination as the frontrunner.

Then Giuliani entered the race, running as "America's mayor." McCain faltered, falling into second place, far behind Giuliani in several polls. How come? It turns out McCain's problem is the same one he had in 2000: conservatives. They're willing to give Giuliani enormous slack, despite his liberalism on social issues and his disheveled personal life. They excuse Romney's numerous switches from liberal to conservative positions. But conservatives vigorously resist McCain. They make no allowance for his liberal digressions on issues such as campaign finance, gun control, stem cell research, President Bush's tax cuts, or global warming. And they give him little or no credit for favoring the reversal of Roe v. Wade, or for supporting the extension of the Bush tax cuts he had originally voted against, or even for his unblemished record as a hawk on national security. Yes, politics is unfair.

And so we have a major anomaly in the Republican presidential campaign: The candidate with the most conservative record of the top contenders is the least liked by conservatives. The aversion to McCain is often visceral. James Dobson, the Christian conservative who runs Focus on the Family, says he prayed about the Republican presidential campaign and concluded that he couldn't vote for McCain "under any circumstances."

McCain's greatest need at the moment is to be one of them, or at least to be viewed by conservatives as an ally on most issues rather than as a thorn in their side. There's a simple reason for this. Without substantial conservative support, McCain can't win the nomination. That makes his task clear, though hardly easy. And he appears committed to pursuing conservative supporters in a way he didn't in 2000. Back then the key primaries he won were New Hampshire and Michigan's, both open to independent voters. Now he's got to win in the closed primaries limited to Republican voters. That means primaries dominated by conservatives.

My guess is McCain can do it. He's already bounced back from the nadir of his candidacy. Contrary to some of the buzz in the political community, his campaign hasn't collapsed, cratered, or come apart. Polls aren't worth much this far ahead of the actual voting, which won't start until next January. Still, his gains in recent Gallup and Time polls match the feeling of McCain's advisers that he's on the road to recovery. In 2000, he had "a bus and a style," says his adviser Mark Salter. Now he has a bus, a style, and a national organization.

Thus the promise of the McCain candidacy remains alive. That promise has nothing to do with the media fiction about a rebel, a political eccentric, an independent Republican who delights in taking shots at conservatives, winding up in the White House. The promise, as McCain's pal Lindsey Graham says, is that Republicans nominate the candidate with the best combination of "conservatism and electability" to win the general election in November 2008. That's McCain. He's "right of center, but still in touch with the center," just where a Republican presidential candidate should be.

McCain has three things to do, and he appears to be doing all of them at the moment. The first is to forget about charming the press. In 2000, his aides joked that McCain's base was the media. In truth, it was. And that's why he lost. Press support and the backing of voters are two different things. Bruce Babbitt, a favorite of reporters, discovered this in 1988 when he ran for the Democratic nomination. He joked that rather than have voters decide the nomination, we should "let the press decide." He flamed out in the first contest, the Iowa caucuses.

The second thing for McCain to do is reject advice that he become "authentic" by running as a rambunctious maverick, as he did in 2000. "Those who say John has to reattach himself to the maverick label don't understand the challenge he faces," says Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina. McCain needs to attract conservatives. The maverick style, stressing his differences with Republicans and taking jabs at Bush, tends to alienate conservatives.

The press is not helpful in this, quite the contrary. Finding voters who miss McCain's maverick musings in 2000 has become a specialty of political reporters. The Los Angeles Times played up a man named Derek Patterson, a McCain backer who fears voters in New Hampshire will be repelled by McCain's efforts to woo conservatives. The Washington Post found Stuart Hume and Mike Moffett, former supporters in New Hampshire who've abandoned McCain because he's become "the very picture of the highly managed presidential candidate he once scorned."

McCain still succumbs to the maverick temptation from time to time. When he appeared with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles in late February, he faulted Bush on global warming, a threat conservatives regard as wildly exaggerated and politically motivated. "I would assess this administration's record on global warming as terrible," he said. McCain also characterized Bush's handling of the war in Iraq as "a train wreck."

The Iraq comment was gratuitous and counterproductive. McCain is one of the strongest supporters of the war in Congress and probably the most eloquent. And the president has finally taken his advice to increase the number of troops in Iraq--the "surge"--and adopt a counterinsurgency strategy to secure and pacify Baghdad.

Worse for McCain was the contrast with Giuliani, who appeared with Schwarzenegger two weeks later at an event focusing on gang violence. The governor praised Giuliani as a crime fighter, noting that when Giuliani was mayor of New York City crime dropped 60 percent and homicides 70 percent. Giuliani offered no criticism of the Bush administration.

The third imperative for McCain is to become, in Graham's words, "a leader of the party." This is harder than it might seem. McCain is unquestionably a leader, but mostly on issues, like campaign finance reform and treatment of imprisoned terrorists, that aren't Republican causes. Graham says McCain has been "a leader of a movement . . . someone who takes a series of ideas and tries to create momentum outside the Republican party." Now he has to work inside the party.

He has a big issue: Iraq. Next to Bush, McCain is the most visible and persuasive defender of the war and has been at least since his powerful speech to the Republican convention in 2004. But with the war going badly, the Iraq issue hasn't helped McCain. "He knows it's hurting him," says Senate Republican whip Trent Lott. Or was hurting him.

With reports of progress in Iraq, the issue is turning in McCain's favor. McCain hasn't changed his tune. His support for the war has been unswerving. "Some people say, hey, aren't you worried about the presidential race?" McCain told me. "Please!" When you see wounded soldiers from Iraq in wheelchairs and on crutches, he says, that should be enough to dissolve any political considerations.

McCain's convention address is still the best explanation of why it was necessary to topple Saddam Hussein. "Our choice wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war," he said. "It was between war and a graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. . . .Whether or not Saddam possessed the terrible weapons of mass destruction he once had and used, freed from international pressure and the threat of military action, he would have acquired them again. . . . We couldn't afford the risk posed by an unconstrained Saddam in these dangerous times."

Last week, McCain cancelled campaign events and returned to Washington to oppose Democratic efforts to withdraw troops from Iraq and end the war. He was ubiquitous, speaking on the Senate floor and TV and in interviews. In his Senate speech, he said Democrats were offering "a date certain for surrender . . . and they offer it just as the situation in Iraq, though still fraught with difficult challenges, is beginning to improve." At a press conference he asked, "Can't my Democrat friends . . . understand that we need to give victory a chance, not give peace a chance, give victory a chance?"

McCain has led on other Republican issues, notably spending cuts. He was one of the few Republican senators to vote against the Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003. He is also one of the architects of a Republican plan for comprehensive immigration reform that is now being drafted in the Senate, and which should be more acceptable to conservatives than was the bill he cosponsored last year with Democratic senator Edward Kennedy. The new plan is based on securing the border first and foremost.

Many conservatives won't be assuaged by McCain's bid to be a party leader. "It's so much at odds with the reputation he's built over the years," says a prominent Republican. "For so many years he was on the other side and he did so with a sense of moral superiority." Being a maverick, Luntz says, "costs you among those who favor party loyalty. You don't know where he stands. That's why independents love him and conservatives don't."

Rick Santorum, defeated last year after a dozen years in the Senate, doesn't trust McCain. And it's exactly that--a lack of trust--that hampers McCain in appealing to conservatives. McCain votes like a social conservative, "but I believe as soon as he gets in office [as president] he'll jettison any social conservative issues. He follows the New York Times, not conservatives. He takes more pleasure in defeating conservative causes than in joining them. People see that."

Indeed they do. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill continues to infuriate conservatives even now, five years after it became law. In Colorado, for instance, Republicans "are particularly sensitive over so-called campaign finance reform laws at the state and local levels that severely restrict political parties and campaigns while three liberal billionaires pump literally tens of millions of unrestricted, unaccountable dollars into Democratic front groups and campaigns," says state Republican chairman Dick Wadhams.

McCain can't do much to soften the anger over McCain-Feingold, and he doesn't seem inclined to try. Nor can he quash the stories about his temper. "Everybody in the Senate has had a McCain moment--when John jumped down your throat for some reason or other," says Santorum. "That's the nature of who he is." McCain does apologize, Santorum adds.

His tumble from the top of the heap of Republican candidates has diminished, but not destroyed, one of McCain's greatest political assets, the notion that he's uniquely electable in a general election. That's attractive to conservatives who are freaked out by the prospect of a President Hillary.

"I'm always for the most conservative candidate who can win," says Frank Donatelli, a Washington lawyer and conservative activist who worked in the Reagan White House. He's for McCain. Trent Lott has often disagreed with McCain. "He was always after pork," he says of McCain. "So was I. Only he was trying to kill it. I was trying to get it." But Lott's attitude is similar to Donatelli's. He's for McCain.

"I always begin a decision like this with a fundamental question," Lott says. "'What's the name of the game?'" Winning, of course, is the name of the game. Lott supports whoever "can win, who is the strongest [candidate] to beat Hillary." Iraq can defeat McCain, Lott thinks, but Hillary can't. "If Iraq goes badly, it'll be over for John and a lot of other Republicans." Lott predicts that the conventional wisdom of a year ago will become reality a year from now: a McCain-versus-Hillary showdown in the general election. McCain of course wins. Sounds plausible to me.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.