On the eve of the Super Tuesday primaries that would confirm him as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, John McCain joined two heretical members of a party that has made itself synonymous with orthodox conservatism–California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, both supporters of abortion rights, gay rights and reasonably functional government–at a solar technology plant in Los Angeles. They talked about their shared commitment to address global warming. And they reminded everyone that the Republican Party of John McCain is not the Republican Party of George W. Bush or Rush Limbaugh.
While Democrat Barack Obama’s remarkable challenge to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment may yet be the essential story of 2008, McCain’s march toward the Republican nomination is the year’s more improbable journey. Since climbing out of the campaign coffin to which he was consigned last summer when his fundraising fell short, McCain has elbowed his way to the front of the Republican pack with a “coalition” that does not rely on the people who thought they ran the party, winning primary after primary with the votes of independents and self-identified GOP moderates, while the right has divided between country club conservative Mitt Romney and evangelical populist Mike Huckabee. Romney and Huckabee both promise to soldier on, but the former governor of Massachusetts is now widely perceived as having blown a personal fortune on a campaign that was overshadowed on Super Tuesday by the live-off-the-land campaign of the former governor of Arkansas. But Huckabee’s win came with a footnote: although he prevailed in his native South, he was barely in the running elsewhere. He’s still got Mississippi, but after that he’s going to run out of states of the old Confederacy. On most maps, McCain looks inevitable.
That prospect enrages the celebrity conservatives, who thought the Grand Old Party was their affair. As the more theatrically than really maverick senator from Arizona began closing in on the nomination, Romney labeled McCain a “liberal” while radio ranter Limbaugh predicted a McCain win would “destroy the Republican Party.” Cuckoo-con Ann Coulter said she would campaign for Hillary Clinton over John McCain, a declaration roughly equivalent to the Pope backing Beelzebub over a dissenting Jesuit. Are right-wingers crazy? What could they possibly find troubling about a self-declared “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution” who was the key campaigner for Bush’s re-election?
The answer has more to do with that trip to the solar plant in LA than with the particulars of a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 82 percent, which ought to make McCain entirely acceptable to the right. What distinguishes the senator from other prominent Republicans is what horrifies the party’s right flank and makes him the GOP’s most viable November contender: McCain tends to accept the idea that there is a mainstream that extends beyond the Fox News Channel’s viewership. To a party that has placed a premium on extreme purity–and to commentators who make their money enforcing ideological standards–McCain seems unsettlingly inclusive. He refers to the GOP as “a big-tent party” and signals that he is more interested in filling that tent than in joining the conservative commissars who guard the gate. Asked about Limbaugh’s criticisms, this regular Letterman guest replied, “I don’t listen to him. There’s a certain trace of masochism in my family, but not that deep.”