The story from California last week was bound to alarm conservatives. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed John McCain for president at a solar technology plant. Rudy Giuliani, who's also backing McCain, joined the lovefest as an uninvited but very welcome guest. And McCain talked about the Republican party as a "big tent," a phrase often used as code for appealing to moderates and ignoring conservatives.
It's not that bad, though. McCain, now the likely Republican nominee, seems to understand that his first order of business is not merely mollifying conservatives but winning them over and unifying the party. "The important thing is to convince our Republican base, one, I'm a conservative," he told Jay Leno. "Two, I'm the best qualified in taking on their major concern."
Bringing conservatives on board won't be easy for McCain. (Nor would uniting Republicans of all stripes be easy for Mitt Romney, should he upset the McCain bandwagon and win the nomination.) Republicans are in a sour mood, especially the talk-radio mafia that regards McCain as anything but a reliable conservative. (They harbor qualms about Romney, too.)
Even a united Republican party will be at a disadvantage in the general election. Democratic primary turnout has doubled from 2004, reflecting a level of enthusiasm among Democrats that hasn't been seen for decades. And the party has the money to fund another massive get-out-the-vote drive this November. In 2004, it took an unprecedented effort by 1.4 million Republican volunteers to overcome the Democratic turnout machine manned by paid campaign workers.
The key to the 2004 success was the passionate commitment of these volunteers to reelecting George W. Bush. These weren't moderates or independents or McCainiacs. They were hardcore conservatives--and particularly social conservatives attracted by Bush's opposition to abortion, gay rights, and embryonic stem cell research.
McCain needs to attract hundreds of thousands of these Republicans as ground troops for his campaign. He's off to a good start. In a new TV ad dubbed "True Conservative," he refers to himself as "a proud social conservative who will never waver." He's expected to get the endorsement soon of the National Right to Life Committee, the influential anti-abortion group, and that will help.
But he's got a long ways to go. Bush spent five years courting social conservatives before his first presidential run. Despite a strong pro-life voting record in the Senate, McCain has never been a favorite of social conservatives, nor has he tried to be. He has an opportunity to embrace them publicly this week when he addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. He should seize it.
On economic issues, McCain has gotten better. He's always advocated spending cuts and opposed earmarks. Now he says the two Bush tax cuts should be made permanent. Why? If they were allowed to expire in 2010, income tax rates would rise, and he's against tax increases. Given this view, McCain might as well make a stark pledge: No new taxes.
On national security, McCain's credentials are dazzling. When other Republicans grew queasy about Iraq after the party's landslide defeat in the 2006 election, McCain grew stronger. He proposed a "surge" of additional American troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy many months before President Bush adopted it.
McCain's touchiest problem--his scourge--is talk radio. Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and others raise legitimate complaints about his flirtations with Democrats and his apostasy on campaign finance, guns, immigration, and embryonic stem cell research.
A Republican strategist had this advice for McCain: "Call the top conservative talk radio hosts. Tell them you don't question their independence. But insist you'll be talking about conservative issues. If they want to get in touch with you at any time, here's your cell phone number. And if they call, you'll answer." That is good advice. McCain might feel it's demeaning, but he shouldn't. The stakes--keeping Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama out of the White House--are too high to be prideful.
McCain, probably alone among Republicans, can win this fall, but not without the full-blown support of conservatives. If he continues to reach out to them while running as a conservative, they need to heed Barry Goldwater's advice in 1960. "Let's grow up, conservatives," he said. "If we want to take this party back, and I think we can, let's get to work."