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The Winter of Conservative Discontent

By Thomas Lifson

The prospect of John McCain as Republican nominee is inspiring sometimes angry resistance from millions of conservative stalwarts. Ann Coulter's famous support for Hillary Clinton threatens to spark a wave of conservative "suicide voters" if the Arizona Senator gets the nomination.

Other Republicans, variously called insiders, party pros, elitists and worse, blithely assure us the alienated base will come around in the end and vote for McCain and the GOP ticket, particularly if Hillary Clinton is the alternative.

Assuming McCain gets the nomination, I am not so sure. It could go either way.

Anger at McCain

Anger has been a consistent theme for 7 years on the left, beginning with outrage over Bush's electoral victory. Anger now has become a familiar conservative motif, as well. McCain has provoked a profound animus from conservatives ranging from Rush Limbaugh and Thomas Sowell on down to the posters at numerous conservative blogs, emailers to this site, and callers to talk radio. McCain's Legislative sins prominently include McCain-Feingold, McCain-Lieberman, and McCain-Kennedy. All three feel to principled conservatives like monstrous betrayals -- liberalism that can only make things worse.

Then there is the obvious relish with which McCain sometimes sticks it to the disaffected voters to his right, as with his comment on a conference call to bloggers likening ANWR and the Grand Canyon as places we shouldn't drill for oil. The conservative base of the GOP has been dissed by the Senator on multiple occasions like this, in ways big and small.

To be fair, this in-your-face attitude has caused trouble for him on the left as well, witness his remark that we could have troops in Iraq for one hundred years and that would be "fine", in response to a hostile questioner in New Hampshire. This man enjoys challenging, sometimes baiting, his opponents, and when provoked may still retain a little of the propensity for getting himself in trouble that he displayed at Annapolis and as a fighter jockey.


McCain's nose-thumbing stings all the worse for conservatives because it has been unusually tough to be a conservative of late. The loss of Congressional majorities still stings. President Bush has been no Reagan, except in his commitment to victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush's fiscal profligacy has been dispiriting, as has his tendency to accommodate Ted Kennedy and other liberals.

Conservatives feel they need a champion. Instead of an inspiring new conservative leader, they have now pinned their hopes on Mitt Romney, who has attracted several major conservative endorsements since McCain became the man to beat. Governor Romney is a fine and able man, but his evolving positions and managerial speaking style do not recommend him for the role of ideological champion.

All in all, it is more than reasonable for conservatives to feel somewhat abandoned. They are unappreciated by McCain, and, so it almost seems, by the party that may be about to nominate him.


Relentless media portrayals of the supposed misery inflicted on America by Bush and other conservatives also have taken their toll. Conservatives ably critique mainstream media coverage of the economy, Iraq, immigration, and other issues, but these words rarely reach beyond the world of the internet and talk radio. The vaster reach of the liberal media has created an atmosphere in which conservatives have to fight against a media-spawned general public impression that having the GOP run the White House or Congress was a very bad idea.

In the major media, the American economy is never celebrated as a success (though Bush's track record has been good), but always seen as a problem. The now-classic portrayal of coffin makers in Iraq suffering as the carnage has declined crystalizes beyond satire the media's gloom-mongering. Iraq was a horrendous disaster, and then it just vanished from consideration as the Surge turned things around. The media have been telling Americans that things are in terrible shape for seven years, thanks to Bush and the conservatives, and too many people buy it because TV comedians joke about it. There are a lot of parties at which it is not much fun to be an open conservative, and not just in Berkeley.

Schadenfreude Season

The sole pleasure being a conservative now is enjoyment of Hillary Clinton's life-and-death struggle for the Democratic nomination. She expected a coronation and ran into Barack Obama's charisma, likability and extraordinary appeal to those delighted at the prospect of finally having a black American occupy the nation's highest office. His race card has trumped her gender card.

She and Bill have already drawn down the family wealth and loaned the campaign five million dollars, while Obama is reported to have raised three million dollars yesterday alone, raising the question of how far will the Clintons go in financing her campaign, against Obama, the candidate with all the momentum. Hillary was known as a tightwad, so this kind of financial drain must be painful indeed for her, and persuading Bill to cough up the dough from his gigs in Dubai, Kazakhstan and other erstwhile friendly states may be no picnic.

If the Democrats' contest lasts all the way to the convention floor, it will get down and dirty, possibly with Hillary needing to pressure super delegates and make a stink about seating the Florida and Michigan delegations, if she is to win. Americans, including conservatives, will be treated to the spectacle of Hillary Hardball being played on Obama, and Obama fighting back. This will serve as a handy reminder to the conservative base of how bad either Democratic alternative to McCain would be.

How Many Conservatives Can McCain Lure Back?

Inevitably at least some conservatives will cool their passions between now and November and rally to defeat Clinton or Obama, unless Senator McCain further aggravates and alienates them during the campaign (a possibility that cannot be ruled out). But McCain potentially could expand the number by addressing both the substantive and emotional problems conservatives have had with his behavior. He must win both hearts and minds, to adopt a Vietnam era slogan. Today's scheduled speech by McCain at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) offers an opportunity to begin mending fences.

On a substantive level, he has emphasized the part of his record that is consistent with bedrock conservative values, showing how very different he would be from the Democrats' nominee. His strongest case is in national defense, but he could leverage his record on fiscal restraint into a push for lower taxes while shrinking the deficit. McCain has a career rating of over 80% from the ACU, while his democratic opponents have approximately 10% ratings.

Perhaps his biggest opportunity to neutralize previous damage is with immigration reform. He needs to make it clear that he no longer favors rewarding illegal residents with permanent residence or a shot at American citizenship, unless they pay some penalty and get back in line in some symbolically and substantively important way. If he is able to backtrack and admit doing so, a door opens for him.

McCain is almost uniquely endowed with the ability to speak meaningfully about the obligations of citizenship, having so spectacularly sacrificed personally in serving his nation. A ringing defense of the heroic service of immigrant soldiers who have earned American citizenship, along with a plan to reform naturalization processes to make it possible for legal immigration to better meet America's needs and interests, could turn the issue around.

In the realm of feelings, some form of direct or indirect apology can be a useful tool of reconciliation in normal group dynamics. But Senator McCain may not have it in him to apologize per se. But if in some form he acknowledges, directly or indirectly, that he regrets the stress he has created for conservatives, that would help his case on a purely emotional level. He might be able to get some mileage out of agreeing to hear out critics of global warming theory, or acknowledging problems with campaign finance reform, or consider reversing himself on ANWR drilling, painting a picture of a man who can learn from his mistakes.

At the same time, he has to avoid giving centrist voters the impression that he is knuckling under to the hard right. A tricky feat for even a sensitive feeling sort of guy, much less for a man who prides himself on speaking his mind and has a temper. A bungled attempt could aggravate matters.

Mitt Romney at this moment is unlikely to be able to pick up momentum and secure the nomination, of course. Only time will tell.

But John McCain seems poorly equipped by temperament to winning over the hearts of alienated conservatives. Which creates the need, if not yet a supply, of conservative leaders willing to help nudge him along toward reconciliation by going a few baby steps forward themselves, in the interest of keeping the United States on the course to victory in Iraq and in the War on Terror.

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of American Thinker.

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