The Magazine

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 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.