Thursday, February 07, 2008

John McCain, in the lion's den

The putative Republican presidential nominee sought today to mollify all those angry conservatives who have essentially declared that they would rather set fire to their hair than follow his lead. I wonder whether he did enough to hose them down. He did not apologize for any of his past heresies. Nor did he promise not to commit fresh heresies in the future. His basic pitch, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, boiled down to this:

I agree with you most of the time, and that should be good enough. And besides, the Democrats are way worse than me.

One speech won't be enough, of course, but he did take one small step down the long road to reconciliation. And for McCain to be fully competitive this fall, reconciliation is required. His vaunted popularity among independent swing voters won't mean squat if he fails to unite and energize the GOP's conservative base.

Indeed, his CPAC speech this afternoon reflected, in part, his need to strike a delicate balance. He had to reach out to wary and hostile conservatives, but he didn't want to pander shamelessly and risk alienating those independent voters.

His first task was simply to show up at all. He wryly noted at the outset, "It's been awhile since I've had the honor of addressing you." Gee, why is that? Left unsaid was the fact that for years McCain has deliberately skipped this annual gathering of right-leaning activists, the biggest event on the conservative calendar. Which is one reason why conference sponsor David Keene remarked the other day that McCain "has pretty much blown his credibility with these people."

But these McCain speech passages were key: "Many of you have disagreed strongly with some positions I have taken in recent years. I understand that. I might not agree with it, but I respect it for the principled position it is. And it is my sincere hope that even if you believe I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have, in many ways important to all of us, maintained the record of a conservative....We have had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won't continue to have a few. But even in disagreement, especially in disagreement, I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives. If I am convinced my judgment is in error, I will correct it. And if I stand by my position, even after benefit of your counsel, I hope you will not lose sight of the far more numerous occasions when we are in complete accord."

Some of his conservative critics might have a problem with that. For starters, they think McCain has done more than "occasionally err," given his deviations from conservative orthdoxy on all kinds of high-profile issues: his support for federal regulation to halt global warming (which some of them believe is a hoax anyway); his law that set up federal regulations designed to curb campaign spending; his opposition to waterboarding the bad guys; his attacks on the U.S. pharmaceutical industry and his support for lower-priced drug imports from Canada; his opposition to the original Bush tax cuts; his opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; and many more. He didn't cite any of those stances in his speech today, much less apologize for them.

But his broader point, in the excerpt above, is that he's making no promises about toeing the conservative line in the future. He wants conservatives to judge his record "as a whole" (a phrase he used several times), and that gives him plenty of wiggle room to decide issues in accordance with his own view of the national interest - at the expense of ideological purity. I can't imagine that his vague reassurances will satisfy the likes of Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson.

Nor did his reassurances satisfy the Club for Growth, an influential conservative group. Within minutes of McCain's speech, it emailed this statement: "He will need to go beyond talking about those issues on which he agrees with conservatives, and address those areas in which we’ve had strong disagreements. More specifically, he will need to reassure conservatives regarding his vision on tax policy; political speech during campaigns; global warming remedies; and his general approach towards regulatory matters."

McCain did mention one sensitive issue today. He started this way: "I have held other positions that have not met with widespread agreement from conservatives. I won't pretend otherwise, nor would you permit me to forget it. On the issue of illegal immigration" - whereupon he was interrupted by a cacophony of boos and catcalls, despite the fact that conventioneers reportedly had been urged in advance not to boo him. They would have loved a full pander on this issue; if McCain had then said that he regrets having championed a path to citizenship for illegals, he would have captured their hearts.

But no. Instead, he said only this: "I respect your opposition, for I know that the vast majority of critics to the bill based their opposition in a principled defense of the rule of law. And while I and other Republican supporters of the (path to citizenship) 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, and only after we achieved widespread consensus that our borders are secure, would we address other aspects of the problem in a way that defends the rule of law and does not encourage another wave of illegal immigration."

Translation: His "failure" was not his support for a path to citizenship, but merely his communication skills, in not sufficiently stressing his concern about the border. He did not renounce his support for a path to citizenship, nor did he promise not to pursue the issue in the future. On the contrary, he referred to the issue in code, as the need to "address other aspects of the problem."

But if he was a tad light on the red meat, he may have helped himself during the second half of his speech, when he focused on the Democrats. In essence, he was giving them a taste of his autumn campaign stump speech, and inviting them to put aside all differences in recognition of the common enemy.

And so it went, with pages seemingly torn from the standard GOP playbook: Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be soft on Islamic extremism ("their resolve to combat it will be as flawed as their judgment"); that they will stress "the muddled thinking of large and expanding federal bureaucracies"; that they'll try to bring health insurance to every American via "big government," and raise your taxes to boot. And, on issues of life and death, he said that his war-hero background trumps the life stories of both Democratic rivals: "There is no other candidate for this office who appreciates more than I do just how awful war is."

I'm sure that elected conservative leaders will continue to fall in line. But some key activists seem less than thrilled by McCain's speech. Richard Viguerie, one of the founders of the modern conservative moment, emailed this statement: "After the last eight or ten years, in which Republican leaders were elected with conservative votes, but then betrayed conservative principles, grassroots conservatives are not so willing to take John McCain at his word. He is an honorable man, but, given the record of the Republican Party and given his own record, conservative rhetoric is not enough to convince people. Conservatives will not be so trusting this time."

He wants McCain to hire prominent conservatives for his campaign staff, and he wants to see McCain pick fights with "Washington establishment liberals," rather than just talk a good game. And if McCain doesn't act soon, "conservatives will start writing off the presidential race. Yes, most - not all – will vote for him, if he is the Republican nominee. But they will not make telephone calls, send out e-mails and postcards, go door to door, contribute money, and do all the hard work that makes victory possible in November."

Given McCain's potential as an estimable autumn candidate, Democrats had better hope that these grassroots conservatives sit on their hands.