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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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."