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All Aboard the McCain Express | The Nation

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All Aboard the McCain Express

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Back when the Republican presidential race was still competitive, the insults against John McCain from leading conservative voices were so extravagant they almost constituted a new literary genre. Rush Limbaugh said McCain threatened "the American way of life as we've always known it." McCain's Senate colleague Thad Cochran said, "The thought of him as President sends a cold chill down my spine." Ann Coulter charged the most unforgivable sin of all: McCain was, in fact, "a Democrat." Coulter's employer, Fox News, seconded the smear on February 7 by printing the words "John McCain (D-AZ)" under footage of the Arizona Republican.

About the Author

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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That day was no ordinary one in the history of McCain-hate. On that afternoon, most of these figures' preferred candidate, Mitt Romney, announced at CPAC, the big annual conservative conference in Washington, that he was dropping out of the race. McCain, now the presumptive Republican nominee, was booed. The next morning the conservative magazine Human Events sent out a weekly roundup of its top ten stories to its e-mail list. Eight were anti-McCain jeremiads. One called the McCain ascendancy "the new Axis of Evil." Michael Reagan's article "John McCain Hates Me" posited a "huge gap that separates McCain--whose contempt for his fellow humans is patently obvious--and my dad, Ronald Reagan," and concluded, "He has contempt for conservatives who he thinks can be duped into thinking he's one of them."

Michael Reagan, for one, would not be duped. He would not defile his father's sacred memory. At least for a week. Eight days later Reagan's article for Human Events argued, "Assuming that John McCain will be the Republican nominee, you can bet my father would be itching to get out on the campaign trail working to elect him even if he disagreed with him on a number of issues."

Such are the strange McCain contortions Republicans have been forcing themselves into in recent weeks. Tom DeLay used to fret that he "might have to sit this one out" if McCain won the nomination. Now he's stumping for the presumptive nominee with apparent enthusiasm. At a March 1 "Reagan Day" dinner (Republicans used to call them "Lincoln Day" dinners), Texas Senator John Cornyn likened the base's swing to McCain to the grieving process: "You come to acceptance."

But what is it that made supporting a senator who has earned an 83 lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union and votes with his party 88.3 percent of the time feel like mourning in the first place? They weren't this hard, after all, on fair-weather conservatives Bob Dole in 1996 or George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992, were they?

Conservatism is, among many other things, a culture. The most important glue binding it together is a shared sense of cultural grievance--the conviction, uniting conservatives high and low, theocratic and plutocratic, neocon and paleocon, that someone, somewhere is looking down their noses at them with a condescending sneer. And to conservatives, McCain has been too often one of the sneerers. It is, as much as anything else, a question of affect. As Michael Reagan wrote, "I don't like the way he treats people. You get the impression that he thinks everybody is beneath him."

They are not entirely imagining things. Birds fly, fish swim, McCain preens: it has ever been thus. His preening has turned the thin-skinned crypt-keepers of conservatism hysterical. "McCain's apostasies," Charles Krauthammer recently wrote in the Washington Post, "are too numerous to count." They aren't, really. Some conservatives still call the Republican nominee "Juan" McCain, for what Reagan calls "such blatantly anti-conservative actions as his support for amnesty for illegal immigrants." But of course Reagan's sainted father, in signing the 1986 immigration bill, was a more unapologetic and effective advocate of "amnesty" than McCain ever was--and you don't hear him getting labeled "Ronaldo" Reagan. Note, also, that other supposed bugaboo of conservative ideology: pork-barrel government spending. McCain is the Senate's leading fighter against spending earmarks. If pork was what they truly cared about, he'd be a hero. But that stance has earned him no points on the "conservative" side of the ledger.

The issues aren't the issue. George Stephanopoulos once asked Tom DeLay what it was conservatives demanded of McCain, and DeLay admitted as much: "I don't think they're demanding that he change in his position," he said. "It is attitude."

In other words: it's the ring-kissing, stupid. Consider George H.W. Bush's attitude: he all but groveled before conservatives--first calling supply-side doctrine "voodoo economics," then swallowing hard and accepting a spot as voodoo priest Reagan's running mate. Bob Dole, formerly a proud budget balancer, lay prostrate before them in accepting a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut as the cornerstone of his 1996 presidential platform, then took on movement hero Jack Kemp as his running mate.

For conservative leaders, making candidates pay them court, publicly and ostentatiously, is a colossal source of their symbolic power before their followers. It's kabuki theater, mostly. Ronald Reagan never did much to make abortion illegal. He did, however, deliver videotaped greetings, fulsome in praise for his hosts, to antiabortion rallies on the Mall. Pentecostal leaders were horrified to see George W. Bush violate what they considered biblical prophesy by giving over the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians in 2004. After they made their dismay known, Bush did not change his mind. He did, however, send top White House and National Security Council staffers to flatter them in a private meeting that concluded, according to an account one of the pastors sent to his followers, "with a heart-moving send-off of the President in his Presidential helicopter." Rings kissed, egos assuaged--and these particular Pentecostals stopped complaining about the sacrilege. The issue wasn't the issue.

For decades, the operative theory in Republican politics has been that there exists a seething mass of lockstep conservative voters controlled by leaders like these, without whose support no Republican can win a presidential election. Michael Reagan puts it this way: "If [McCain] gets the nomination the only way he could win against Hillary or Barack Obama would be to be part of a McCain-Limbaugh ticket." But that's certainly never been reflected in any actual electoral data. Indeed, this year it appears that conservative opinion leaders are more out of touch with the masses they purport to lead than ever. According to a recent CBS poll, only 17 percent of Republicans want an uncompromising conservative as their nominee. Eighty percent of Republicans are satisfied with McCain. Sixty percent of conservative primary voters say they "want a candidate who would compromise with Democrats in order to get things done."

McCain has called their bluff. He didn't suck up to Rush Limbaugh but won the nomination anyway; he's also faring well in general election matchups. He has shown that the kingmakers have no clothes. The humiliation is hard to forgive. It has made it harder for conservative leaders to do business and turned politicians like McCain (and Arnold Schwarzenegger), in their eyes, into monsters. On Glenn Beck's CNN show, for instance, Democratic consultant Peter Fenn pointed out that the reason McCain does well with voters is that "they think he is independent."

"Yes," Beck replied, "well, so is Dr. Frankenstein."

Kind of gives the game away: in their mind, these conservative leaders create Republican Presidents. But what's the point if GOP candidates are just going to go crashing around the countryside doing whatever the hell they want?

And so the professional conservatives did their best to set loose the torch-bearing mob. Late in January, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum made call after call after call spreading the word that, yes, even a President Hillary Clinton or a President Barack Obama would be better than a President McCain. At one point, according to Democratic activist Mike Lux, who overheard an indiscreet Santorum making such calls on the New York-DC Metroliner, Santorum attempted to talk an interlocutor into "coming out with a terrible story about McCain from five or six years ago." Clearly the crusade to sabotage McCain didn't work. Professional conservative Monica Crowley finally admitted the obvious: "A lot of people have actually voted for McCain, and they weren't just moderates and independents. Enough Republicans have voted for him to give him the nomination--and yes, a decent number of conservatives have too."

The frustration has been palpable. There was, for instance, the incident with radio host Bill Cunningham. Cunningham had warmed up a partisan crowd before a McCain speech in Cincinnati by barking out Obama's infamous middle name, Hussein. When McCain later "learned" about the remark, he pronounced himself shocked, shocked--and said he'd never met Cunningham in his life. Republicans have been choreographing such stylized minuets for so long now--the "grassroots conservative" gets the smears "out there," the "establishment" candidate distances himself from them, everyone emerges all the stronger--that the steps have become implicit. But Cunningham pretended to have forgotten the dance. He went on TV and complained that, of course he had met McCain several times before, and that of course McCain's handlers had told him to throw the crowd "red meat."

But everyone couldn't abandon McCain. If the Democrats won the presidency, after all, the country would see, as Human Events's Bret Winterble warned, "Obama socializing entire corporate sectors." Republicans were stuck with McCain. So what would happen next?

Conservatives started to pivot publicly in the middle of February. It may have had something to do with reports that McCain gave in to what Robert Novak identified as the negotiating terms of "elements of the Republican Party's right wing": "first, that McCain would veto any tax increase passed by a Democratic Congress; second, that he would not emulate Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush in naming liberal Supreme Court Justices such as John Paul Stevens and David Souter." It may also have something to do with McCain's bowing down before the conservative holy grail of super-harsh enforcement-first immigration reform.

Or, if my theory is correct, the conservative turnabout may have less to do with any particular policy pledges than with an ostentatious shift in apparent attitude: a show of groveling before the professional conservatives. "I've listened and learned," ran McCain's Super Tuesday radio ads announcing he'd seen the light on immigration: "No one will be rewarded for illegal behavior." Note the language. "Listening" is precisely the word the angriest professional conservatives use most when describing McCain's attitude problem. "He promises to hear, not to listen," Human Events editor Jed Babbin complained. "I am appalled by his contempt for the intelligence of his listeners," Michael Reagan moaned in his column.

We may never know how these meetings went down. Something, however, seems to have shifted in those days following CPAC. Jack Kemp, the man who was made Bob Dole's 1996 running mate as a sop to conservatives, penned an open letter to right-wing talk-radio on February 11, arguing that for conservatives to sit petulantly on their hands this fall would turn over the nation to "those who would weaken our nation's defense, wave a white flag to al-Qaida, socialize our health-care system, and promote income redistribution and class warfare instead of economic growth and equality of opportunity." He even, rather comically, compared McCain to another "well-known maverick" conservatives once foolishly turned against: Winston Churchill. "He was even banned from talk radio (aka the BBC) in those days," Kemp wrote.

Then, fortuitously, in the third week of February, just as the floodgates for McCain's redemption were opening, came an exposé of his alleged favors to an attractive blond lobbyist--from dreaded bête noire of conservatives, the New York Times. That offered the fig leaf to erstwhile McCain-haters who wished to make the pivot to party loyalty and still save face. It was no accident, they claimed, that it had been the people Jed Babbin called in another context "the hyperliberal editors of the New York Times" who had engineered the man's downfall. "The New York Times is trying to Swift Boat McCain," trumpeted one Republican strategist. "This is the first real salvo of the general election." An RNC letter sent, among other places, to the Human Events e-mail list blared, "The New York Times has proven once again that the liberal mainstream media will do whatever it takes to put Senator Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the White House." Mac-Lash: Times Slime Boo$ts McCain, declared the New York Post headline on a story of the fundraising blip that ensued.

To which a citizen of the reality-based community might reasonably ask: why would the editors at the Times--a paper that hired McCain's most consistent and aggressive backer in the conservative opinion firmament, Bill Kristol, as a columnist--"Swiftboat" a candidate they had endorsed for the Republican nomination?

How naïve you are. "The media picked the GOP's candidate," explained Rush Limbaugh, "and is now, with utter predictability, trying to destroy him." Shock-talker Laura Ingraham helpfully elaborated: "You wait until it's pretty much beyond a doubt that he's going to be the Republican nominee, and then you let it drop." The Times conspiracy was so immense and manifestly evil that even McCain's sworn rival, Mike Huckabee, found it in his heart to denounce it.

So the right is finally rowing more or less in the same direction, right? Not so fast. Newsmax.com on the day of CPAC, approvingly quoting Limbaugh, added to the anti-McCain thunder this way: "We are sick and tired of how the people who seem to be triumphing in our party are precisely the people who seem to be selling this party out in terms of its ideology." Four days later, McCain's nomination guaranteed, Newsmax, whose e-mail list of millions of names makes it much more influential than elite outlets like National Review or The Weekly Standard, attempted an awkward 180-degree twist. It quoted the testimony of a left-wing British writer, Johann Hari--identified as an "editorial board member of The Liberal magazine," so he must be speaking for Liberal Central Command--saying that McCain's "credentials as a 'bipartisan progressive' are in fact a 'lazy, hazy myth'.... 'The truth is that McCain is the candidate we should most fear.'"

See? The liberals hate him. So it's safe for us to like him.

But conservatism, like I say, is a business. You know you never get an e-mail from Newsmax editors without them trying to sell you something. What they were selling this time was a previous issue of their magazine with a McCain story on the cover. The piece was called "Inside McCain's Head," and it retold the far right's favorite former story about the man: that he's a Manchurian candidate whose true loyalties ultimately belong to the enemy. Newsmax hadn't even bothered to change the advertising copy now that former foe was friend: "In this eye-opening report on McCain Newsmax magazine delves into: How McCain charmed Manhattan's media elites with an exclusive fete that pundits say 'launched' his 2008 campaign for the White House.... "Why Paul Weyrich thinks McCain isn't the right man for the White House.... "McCain's 14-hour stints at the Las Vegas craps tables."

We like to think of the American right as a finely honed mechanism--a "conservative noise machine." And most times over the previous decade, the metaphor worked. But these days, the movement can no longer keep its stories straight. It reminds me of the McCain website the day after the New York Times lobbying exposé, the same day the RNC sent out its fundraising letter accusing the Times of electioneering for the Democrats. To anyone who might doubt that the good old conservative machine is overheating from the confusion and strain, here is proof that the noisemakers had clearly neglected to coordinate their anti-Times fundraising push with the McCain campaign. For there was the Times endorsement on its website that same day, bold as brass.

The gears of the contraption are jamming. Let the contortions of a Michael Reagan or a Newsmax attest to that, if nothing else. The whole machine had always been built on a series of bluffs: that once the malign hand of the liberals was removed from the executive, legislative and judicial branches, our new conservative Jerusalem would be achieved. But something remarkable occurred in the five years between 2001 and 2006: for the first time since the rise of the modern conservative movement with the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, then the rise of Newt Gingrich's revolutionaries in 1994, the right had a chance to control all three branches of government--to actually run the country. Naught but obvious failures have been the result: a crashing economy, a rotting infrastructure, a failed war and a less safe world, more Americans saying their nation is on the wrong track than at any time since pollsters started measuring.

In the face of all this, the conservative movement has kept on trying to do the only thing it knows how to do: sell conservatism. Saner heads in the Republican Party, meanwhile, have done their darnedest to put forward a presidential prospect who might let the party distance itself, if only rhetorically, from the disaster that conservatism in power has proved to be.

But without "conservatism" as the core narrative, the Republican Party doesn't know how to tell any stories at all. Its confusion over how to talk about McCain is only the symptom. The conservative era is over--if you want it.

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