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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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.