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High Noon for Conservatives

Will Sheriff McCain fight the Democrats alone?

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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It was High Noon on television, and the camera kept cutting away to those narrow shots of wall clocks and grandfather clocks and cuckoo clocks and pocket watches: that annoying clonk, clonk, clonk as the seconds ticked by and the train barreled closer. You remember the film. Everybody in town knew that Gary Cooper was the right man to stand up to the bad guys coming in on the noon train. But the unctuous Henry Morgan and all the rest of the town's bankers and shopkeepers wouldn't stand with him, and Grace Kelly, the sweet religious girl who loved him and mistrusted him, was packing her bags to leave.

Well, that's pretty much the Republican party, isn't it? Nobody doubts John McCain on foreign policy and national security. Oh, there are plenty of people who dislike his positions, beginning with the core of the Democratic party, but even they know where the man stands. It's on the other issues of the old Reagan platform that Republicans remain uneasy with McCain. The fiscal and domestic-policy conservatives--that's Henry Morgan--never liked him, and the social conservatives--that's Grace Kelly--kept hoping there was some other way to live.

Now John McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee, and he needs to find a way to win over the skittish conservatives. For that matter, the conservatives need to find a way to win over the nominee. What kind of president would we have with a John McCain bitterly convinced that he has won despite, or even against, the conservative movement?

Of course, that isn't likely. No meaningful number of conservatives will actually show up on Election Day to vote for Clinton or Obama in protest against McCain. But this much of Karl Rove's electoral vision remains true: If conservatives, especially social conservatives, stay home in November, the Democrats will almost certainly win. McCain has to excite conservatives about the election, both negatively, by convincing them that the Democrats must be defeated, and positively, by convincing them that he's a strong alternative.

On Thursday, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, McCain began the work he has to do. His speech was, to some extent, a straightforward list of his conservative credentials as a Reagan Republican. "I believe today, as I believed 25 years ago," he insisted, "in small government; fiscal discipline; low taxes; a strong defense; judges who enforce, not make, our laws; the social values that are the true source of our strength; and, generally, the steadfast defense of our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which I have defended my entire career as God-given to the born and unborn."

All that's more or less true, his critics can reply, but there's a lot of wiggle room within it. A judge could "enforce, and not make, our laws" by upholding the campaign-speech restrictions of the McCain-Feingold reform. "The social values that are the true source of our strength" need not necessarily be threatened by immigration amnesty. Small government seems an unlikely talking point for McCain; he's always been, like President Bush, a believer in government solutions. Fiscal discipline and low taxes can be held to even while he sponsors global-warming legislation, and his support for the rights of the unborn can be fudged to include his willingness to allow in-vitro embryos to be harvested for stem cells.

Of all these conservative complaints, McCain addressed only immigration directly--not exactly apologizing but making a conciliatory gesture: "While I and other Republican supporters of the bill were genuine in our intention to restore control of our borders, we failed, for various and understandable reasons, to convince Americans that we were. I accept that, and have pledged that it would be among my highest priorities to secure our borders first."

Early Friday morning, President Bush visited CPAC, speaking to the same crowd that had heard McCain the previous afternoon. Along the way, Bush trumpeted his stem cell victory: "In 2001, I had a grave decision to make on the question of embryonic stem cell research. I believed we could empower scientists and researchers to discover cures for terrible diseases--without crossing a moral line. .  .  . Then last November, scientists announced a landmark achievement. They found a way to reprogram adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells. This discovery has the potential to end the divisive debate over stem cell research. And it will allow us to expand the frontiers of medicine, while maintaining a culture of life."

It was a nice, valedictory moment, recalling the president's victory in the face of enormous opposition--a small portion of which came from John McCain. And yet, precisely because the recent scientific breakthroughs have granted Bush victory, social conservatives probably don't need a full mea culpa from McCain on the topic. Stem cells have disappeared as a major campaign concern, and though he was guilty of backsliding in 2004 (when he was one of 58 senators to sign a letter urging federal funding for new stem cell lines derived from frozen embryos), much of the specific issue has been eliminated by the new promise of reprogramming adult skin cells.

On campaign finance reform, however, something from McCain still feels necessary. There's a sense in which social conservatives need from a Republican, above all, certainty about the Supreme Court--and so, when President Bush forgot and nominated Harriet Miers, they quickly reminded him. McCain, however, is trapped by campaign finance reform. Where does he imagine he can find a justice who will both be a reliable conservative and uphold McCain-Feingold? One or the other has to go, and though McCain named John Roberts and Samuel Alito as model justices in his speech, it remains a question whether he thinks McCain-Feingold is worth the price of another nonconservative justice sitting on the Supreme Court.

Fiscal conservatives have heard from McCain many of their favorite keywords: earmarks, line-item veto, tax cuts, free-market solutions to health care, entitlement programs. It's hard to believe anyone was convinced that he is really averse to Bush-like big government, but then it's not clear he has to convince the fiscal conservatives of that; all he must do is persuade them that he's better than the Democrats.

Turns out, at the end of High Noon, Gary Cooper didn't actually need help from Henry Morgan and the other bankers and shopkeepers in the town. But without Grace Kelly, he would have died. If the social conservatives who love and mistrust him don't come back to help, John McCain will lose on November 4.

Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is editor of First Things.