Eight months ago, John McCain’s presidential campaign seemed dead. On the two most important issues of last year — Iraq and illegal immigration — he defied public sentiment by supporting the unpopular positions of an unpopular president. His defense of the troop surge and amnesty for illegals left him unable to raise money from GOP sources and stuck at the bottom of polls.
Then the stars aligned. American military forces turned the tide of violence in Iraq, and a faltering economy displaced illegal immigration as the electorate’s top domestic concern. Sen. McCain gradually wrapped up the backing of centrists, independents and party faithful who put a premium on military experience. One by one, other Republican candidates succumbed to their handicaps and limited appeal.
Now, with Wednesday’s announcement that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has suspended his bid for the White House, Sen. McCain is atop a GOP field that once numbered nine. The nomination is his.
But Sen. McCain’s improbable comeback looks routine compared with the task that awaits him. To win the presidency in November, he must unite a splintered party by convincing its conservative base he’s more than a maverick Nanny Stater.
How much work does the Arizona Republican have ahead of him? Consider that many of his Senate colleagues were downright gloomy about his performance in Super Tuesday’s primaries, which made him the party front-runner.
“A lot of people around here are going to have to recalibrate their attitudes toward John McCain,” said Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah.
“McCain is going to have to reach out,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
Many of Sen. McCain’s votes have directly undermined the Republican Party’s platform, from opposing President Bush’s tax cuts at the beginning of the decade to fighting oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He famously sponsored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, a constitutionally dubious set of restrictions on political speech that insulate incumbents from criticism in the weeks leading up to federal elections.
“One of the worst bills in my 31 years here is McCain-Feingold,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “These are issues that are constantly brought up by conservatives, that give them some angst. … I think it’s going to be very uphill.”
This lack of enthusiasm among some circles of the Republican Party cannot be taken lightly. The Democratic Party is more energized for the 2008 elections than any in a generation. Registered Democrats are participating in primaries in far greater numbers than Republicans. If Sen. McCain cannot create a comparable level of excitement among stalwart conservatives, many of them will stay home on Election Day.
Does that mean Sen. McCain must overhaul his campaign message and change most of his positions? No. Sen. McCain’s strength as a candidate rests primarily on his honesty and the conviction he has brought to many legislative battles. He has learned from his defeats; if elected president, Sen. McCain now pledges to secure America’s borders to block future waves of illegal immigration and make President Bush’s income tax cuts permanent.
“I will not obscure my positions from voters. … If I am convinced my judgment is in error, I will correct it,” Sen. McCain told the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday.
If Sen. McCain intends to keep his promise of honesty, perhaps he can clarify why, when he says he embraces the concept of limited government, he wants to ban regulated wagering on amateur and collegiate sports in Nevada, and why he subscribes to the idea that massive government intervention is needed to combat global warming.
That said, Sen. McCain has long disdained the pork-barrel spending that boosts the national debt, and he vows to veto any bill that contains even one earmark. He wants to abolish the alternative minimum tax, once and for all, and cut corporate income tax rates. He wants to reform the country’s unsustainable entitlements to ensure the federal government can deliver on the promises it has made to taxpayers. And he understands that America can’t let the rest of the world determine its foreign policy or how best to preserve its national security.
These are the credentials Sen. McCain must emphasize to conservatives. This is the common ground that can unite the Republican Party. Lower taxes. Less spending. A strong defense.
If conservatives meet Sen. McCain halfway across the bridge, they just might like what they see.