Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The Republican presidential candidates debate again today, in Iowa. Meanwhile, this is perhaps the oddest aspect of the fluid Republican presidential race: The most electable candidate remains broadly unpopular within his own party.

That would be John McCain, who's still breathing after having been given up for dead not too many months ago. I'm tempted to wonder whether Republicans are so fixated on punishing illegal immigrants that they would prefer to lose the '08 election rather than nominate an electable guy whose talk of compassion flunks their litmus test.

The latest national survey, released yesterday, reports that McCain is currently the only GOP candidate who stacks up well against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. He leads Hillary by a couple points, and he's tied with Obama - unlike his rivals, many of whom would lose to either Democrat by a landslide.

I wasn't totally surprised by those numbers; McCain is often cited by many Democrats as the only palatable candidate in GOP camp (despite his staunch support for the Iraq war). His enduring appeal (attributable to his strength of character) was evident last week, when he was singled out by a number of participants in a Democratic focus group in Philadelphia.

Hence this question: Given the glaring flaws of the other GOP candidates, why haven't grassroots Republicans gravitated to McCain - who may be ideologically imperfect, from their perspective, yet nevertheless might be most qualified to keep Hillary out of the White House?

One could make an easy case for his assets: He has sustained a more consistent conservative record on the social issues (abortion, gay marriage) than either Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. On fiscal issues, he has been inveighing against wasteful pork-barrel spending far longer than any of his rivals. He has staunchly supported the Iraq war, and has been willing to say so out loud, unlike most of his rivals - and one would think that this would appeal to grassroots Republicans. And, unlike Mike Huckabee, he won't potentially scare off independent swing voters by acting as if he was running for the job of pastor-in-chief.

Yet McCain still lags behind the field - even in New Hampshire, the state that boosted his upstart 2000 campaign. The latest CNN poll shows him far behind Romney, despite the latter's ongoing imitation of a weathervane.

And there's another factor that could complicate McCain's quest to become the GOP's comeback kid: the mood of the independents. Under New Hampshire rules, registered voters unaffiliated with either party can choose, on the day of balloting, to participate in either party primary. This year, the majority of those voters might opt to join the Democratic contest in order to vote for Barack Obama.

So McCain is left with the task of wooing the party base, but the immigration issue apparently remains a deal-breaker. He gets no points for being consistent in his belief that illegals can't simply be shipped home ("these are God's children as well, and they need some protections under the law and they some of our love and compassion"), nor for his willingness to state his belief in front of hostile Republican audiences. For many grassroots Republicans, hostility towards illegal immigrants has replaced hostility towards abortion providers as the ultimate litmus test.

But maybe McCain is providing Republicans with the ultimate test - between pragmatism and purity. What's more important next year: Is it better to punish McCain on this issue, and risk not fielding the most electable candidate?

As Voltaire warned a few centuries ago, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."