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.
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.