With apologies to Governor Huckabee and Congressman Paul, the GOP race is effectively over, and Senator John “Maverick” McCain is all but sure to claim the Republican party's nomination for President of the United States. This news has provoked a range of responses, and created a condition for all the major players which, at the very least, means a set of hard choices for us all.
First, the hard-line Right. I consider myself as strong a Conservative as anyone I know, and frankly I have no great desire to see John McCain in the White House, but I have to say I am appalled by some of the statements made by even leading Conservatives. Ann Coulter’s claim that she will actively support the Democrats’ nominee out of spite against McCain, is a poor decision on many counts, including comprehension of the difference between even the weakest Republican President and any potential Democrat in the office, as well as simple ideals of the party. Conservatives are bitterly disappointed, and with cause, that the party they worked so hard to build has denied them an effectively Conservative representative in this election cycle. There was no Reagan in this race, not even a Bush. There were people who said the right things, but they never caught on, and the men who won the early primaries were none of them quite what Conservatives wanted. As a result, Conservatives must now choose between a man with whom they have strong differences, a party which threatens massive damage to the country should it claim control of the White House and Congress at the same time, and sitting out the election and hoping for the best. I don’t think any of the three choices will sit well with Conservatives.
Next, Senators Clinton and Obama. You might not think they would have much to worry about, but indeed they do. You see, before Super Tuesday both parties had an all-out tussle going, and while McCain had the lead, if Romney or Huckabee had a big day on Feb. 5 then things would be back to total chaos, while Clinton and Obama each hoped to pull cleanly away from their rival. Instead, the opposite happened – the GOP race is pretty much decided, while the Democrats are neck and neck, and they have some sharp disagreements on their record. At the very least, the Democrat candidates will each have to spend a lot of energy and resources trying to win the party nomination, while McCain can begin his general campaign right now. Clinton and Obama will each maintain something of a negative campaign, while McCain can build up name recognition with the undecided voter as a positive force, memories of his own negative tactics fading as he moves ahead. Figuring out how to beat your party opponent and McCain from the Republicans at the same time, will be unquestionably be problematic for both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama.
Then there are Senator McCain’s own hard choices. McCain won the commanding lead he has, through courting the independent-minded and socially liberal Republicans and middle-ground voters, which may provide some help in the general election for him. But no Republican candidate can win the White House without making sure his party is solidly behind him. And that party support depends heavily on Conservative support. In 1988, almost all Conservatives supported G.H.W. Bush, and he cleared 53% of the Popular Vote, the last Presidential candidate to do so well. In 1992, almost no Conservatives supported “Poppy” Bush, and he barely cleared 37% of the Popular Vote. In 2000, Conservatives were lukewarm to George W. Bush, and he only barely won through a popular minority and Electoral majority. But in 2004, Conservatives poured support on for Dubya, and he cleared 51% of the Popular Vote. Having or not having the support of the Conservatives can therefore be said to mean at least 6% in the Popular Vote margin, and possibly double that. It is obvious that McCain cannot win without the Conservatives behind him, but if he chases the Conservatives, he may lose those social Liberals who would not already have chosen to support Obama or Hillary.
Also, it may be too late for McCain to decide he needs the Conservatives’ support. The war between McCain and Conservatives is not the result of one issue or one incident – John McCain went out of his way, well out of his way in some cases, to make enemies of Conservatives and to attack them, in some cases completely without cause. It’s not just McCain’s vote on some issues as the way he discussed them in public, viciously denouncing Conservatives time and time again. McCain also acted in a narcissistic manner on a regular basis, not merely supporting but leading a movement to deny Senate committee votes to judicial nominees, to prohibit support for public debate just before elections, and in regularly defying his Senate Majority Leader, GOP leadership, and even tossed off regular snipes at President Bush, displaying a petulance and temper ill-suited to a would-be head of state. McCain did not merely burn some bridges, he cratered the landscape around the wreckage, salted the ground and disparaged all efforts to commend him to a more gracious behavior. Just how Senator McCain will be able to construct a unified party in time to win the General Election seems at the moment to be beyond the scope of feasibility.
Conservative bloggers and pundits also have hard choices to make. Posting articles which tear down McCain may be factually accurate and idealistically suitable, but this could help the Democrats, which is universally a bad idea. Supporting McCain without pointing out the areas where he is well out of bounds, however, would be unethical and only encourage his arrogance and false assumptions – anyone want to bet that the Democrats are not ready to go after every one of McCain’s many weak spots? Bloggers also need to keep their emotions in check. Ann Coulter’s little hissy-fit about supporting a Democrat will do no good for the Conservative Movement, especially if some of her readers get the idea that voting Hillary or Obama would be any wiser than dousing yourself with gasoline, lighting up a stogie and tap-dancing through a minefield. Set a better example please, Ms. Coulter. Just as Dan Rather’s criminal attempt to influence the 2004 election with forged documents was unacceptable, those people who are fortunate enough to have a large following must be reminded that they are accountable for the course they counsel their people to follow. While it is true that Conservatives are not lockstep robots, it remains a penultimate sin for an icon to forget that he or she does influence millions of people. This makes the choices weighty, but we must in any case be aware of that fact.