Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Republican civil war ... and McCain's dilemmas

A week ago, after the results of the Super Tuesday primaries came in and Romney dropped out of the Republican race, it became clear that John McCain will almost certainly be the Republican nominee for President (barring some weird and unpredictable development between now and the summer). Nevertheless, as I suggested at the time, the situation on the Republican side remains a bit more complex and unsettled than it might appear on the surface.
So it appears that, in the end, the Republicans will coalesce behind a single candidate well before the Democrats--the opposite of what seemed likely at the beginning of January.

But in important respects that outcome is a bit of an optical illusion. If the Republican Party allocated each state's delegates on a proportional basis as the Democrats do, rather than awarding them on a winner-take-all basis, none of the leading Republican candidates would be anywhere close to commanding a majority of delegates. McCain's victory depended on the fact that Romney and Huckabee (representing different "conservative" constituencies within the Republican coalition) have been splitting the anti-McCain vote--and the point is that much of it is an anti-McCain vote. A significant proportion of Republican voters and activists genuinely hate and fear McCain, in a way that has no real parallel in the Democratic contest.

[....] McCain will get the Republican nomination, which gives him and his party time to rest and recuperate while the Democrats are still slugging it out. And through the mysterious operation of what Hegel would have called the cunning of reason, the Republicans have found themselves compelled to nominate their only candidate with anything approaching serious presidential stature.

But the internal Republican civil war hasn't really gone away--and this fact presents McCain with difficult dilemmas. If important elements of the Republican coalition remain intransigently opposed to McCain, that will hurt him in November. But if winning them over requires McCain to pander to them too conspicuously, and to compromise some of his core positions in visibly unprincipled ways, then that will also hurt his appeal--especially among independent voters and so-called "moderate" Republicans, who account for a lot of his strength.

(Yesterday the pollster John Zogby, in an intelligent analysis of the political situation "After Super Tuesday", noted that McCain might also be the only Republican candidate who could slow the hemorrhage of the party's Hispanic support. But many Republican voters are upset with McCain precisely because of his "moderate" position on immigration reform, and if McCain were to adopt strident immigrant-bashing rhetoric to overcome that distrust, then he would have to abandon any hope of neutralizing the anti-Republican backlash among Hispanic voters.)

Frankly, I suspect that in practice McCain will find these dilemmas impossible to resolve successfully. [....]
They say that a week is a long time in politics, but it seems to me that everything that has happened in the meantime further confirms this picture. If there were any doubts that are still significant constituencies in the Republican coalition who remain hostile to a McCain candidacy, those doubts should have been dispelled on February 9 when Huckabee beat McCain decisively in Louisiana and Nebraska and either came close to beating him, or actually beat him, in Washington.

Things are uncertain in Washington because the Republican state chairman, in a bizarre move reminiscent of Florida in 2000, stopped the count with only 87% of the precincts having reported. Even so, the present count puts McCain only very slightly in first place with 26% of the vote, versus 24% for Huckabee, 16% for Romney (who isn't even running any more), and a striking 21% for Ron Paul (who has never been a credible candidate). In other words, even if we assume that McCain winds up 'winning' Washington in the final vote count, the unambiguously anti-McCain votes added up to 61% versus McCain's 24%. And this is in a state where the strength of Huckabee's challenge to McCain can't be attributed to his support among Southern Baptists.

Of course it's true that caucuses, like the ones in Washington, give a disproportionate weight to the most committed and activist voters. McCain solidly won the three Republican primaries yesterday in Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia----but in Virginia Huckabee surprised a lot of people (including the pollsters) by coming up with 41% of the vote to McCain's 50%.

=> In short, the Republicans are taking a while to coalesce behind McCain's candidacy, even though his nomination still seems inevitable.

What is interesting is that there are several, only partly overlapping, constituencies in the Republican right who are hostile to McCain, for a partly overlapping cluster of reasons. (And some of these are also very hostile to Huckabee, it should be added, so there is not clear far-right Republican alternative to McCain).

Explaining why there are such strong pockets of Republican hostility to McCain would take a while (and I'm not sure anyone fully understands the phenomenon of McCain Derangement Syndrome), but one could put it this way for a start: Some right-wingers can't forgive him for voting against the Bush tax cuts (even though he is now selling out on that position). Others can't forgive him for calling Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance" during the 2000 campaign. Others can't forgive him for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform. Others can't forgive him for his positions in support of conservation and environmental protection (part of McCain's Teddy Roosevelt side). Others can't forgive him for his "moderate" position on immigration--which, ironically, involved supporting George W. Bush's immigration-"reform" package. Some can't forgive him for having opposed torture. And so on. (For one summing-up statement that brings together all these grievances in a way that's close to self-caricature, but still illuminating, see this anti-McCain rant by Ann Coulter.)

People from these anti-McCain constituencies are not going to vote for the Democratic candidate. But if they don't work for McCain enthusiastically during the campaign or turn out to vote at high rates in November, that will hurt him. As I've said, this situation presents the McCain campaign with a dilemma. It appears that he may have to make conspicuous efforts to win over, or at least mollify, Republican constituencies hostile to him. Otherwise, he probably can't take their support for granted. But pandering to them has its own dangers. Any significant steps that McCain takes to mollify the anti-McCainiacs will risk alienating independents, moderate Republicans, and other potential swing voters whose fondness for McCain is one of his greatest electoral strengths.

=> In this connection, it's worth reading a thoughtful and interesting recent post by Bradley Smith on the RedState group weblog, "Should Conservatives Work for McCain?". (Smith's basic answer is no, but he arrives at it with some anguished ambivalence.)

Smith does a useful job of spelling out and clarifying some of the key reasons why certain Republican constituencies hate McCain so much, and he also offers an intelligent analysis of McCain's overall political situation (from the perspective of a right-wing Republican activist). This is probably the heart of the matter:
If John McCain is to have any chance of winning the presidency, his vaunted appeal to independents and the last of the “Reagan Democrats” will be important but probably insufficient. He will also need to consolidate the Republican base, and get its enthusiastic support. This support is needed less for its raw vote totals (though in a close race, the difference between 90% Republican support for Senator McCain and 80% support could be substantial), than for its funding, its enthusiasm, and its get out the vote efforts. Saturday’s results indicate what a battle this could be. [....]

Politics, of course, is a world of compromise and making up. Politicians cannot afford to have permanent enemies. And thus in the last week we have seen Republican officeholders and many of the party’s grand old men fall into line behind Senator McCain. But Republican activists will be a more difficult sell.
In the process, I think Smith manages to sharpen the picture of McCain's dilemma in a perceptive and illuminating way. What really drives some right-wing Republicans crazy about McCain, Smith argues, is not just his position on certain issues but his whole political style. But that political style (real and perceived) happens to be a key component of McCain's larger appeal. So McCain can't compromise that too much without severely damaging his all-important image as an independent "maverick" and a principled "straight-talker" (and, in the perception of many voters, a relatively "moderate" Republican).
Last week, at CPAC, Senator Tom Coburn introduced John McCain to many of these same conservatives by saying, “John may not always tell us what we want to hear, but what he tells us, he will do.”

And therein lies the problem for John McCain, as he now seeks to consolidate the Republican base for his presidential run. For McCain to maintain his appeal to independents, he must continue to be viewed as “straight-talker” who tells people things, “they don’t want to hear.” But as much as his policy positions, it is this image, and what McCain has done to obtain it, that drives many conservatives nuts.
Again, Smith's discussion is worth reading in full ... but, as a compromise, some extensive quotations are below.

--Jeff Weintraub
=========================
RedState
February 11, 2008
The Wages of Being John McCain:
Should Conservatives Work for McCain?

By Brad Smith

[....]

Since 2001, I have always presumed that John McCain would be the GOP presidential nominee in 2008. Thus, making some rounds in D.C. early in 2007, I was surprised at how many Republican activists would say some variation of, “McCain is probably more conservative than Romney or Rudy, but he’s the one I can’t support.”

With the Republican nomination all but wrapped up, John McCain still got kicked around on Saturday. Mike Huckabee absolutely thumped McCain in Kansas, and narrowly beat him in Louisiana. Up in Washington state, which ought to be McCain country, Mitt Romney, who has suspended his campaign, and Ron Paul, who is back in Texas trying to save his congressional seat, combined to outpoll McCain 38-26% in the Republican caucuses, while Gov. Huckabee scooped up another 24%, before the state party chairman halted the counting and declared Sen. McCain the winner though just 87% had been counted. Not an impressive showing of his strength with the Republican electorate.

If John McCain is to have any chance of winning the presidency, his vaunted appeal to independents and the last of the “Reagan Democrats” will be important but probably insufficient. He will also need to consolidate the Republican base, and get its enthusiastic support. This support is needed less for its raw vote totals (though in a close race, the difference between 90% Republican support for Senator McCain and 80% support could be substantial), than for its funding, its enthusiasm, and its get out the vote efforts. Saturday’s results indicate what a battle this could be.

Politics, of course, is a world of compromise and making up. Politicians cannot afford to have permanent enemies. And thus in the last week we have seen Republican officeholders and many of the party’s grand old men fall into line behind Senator McCain. But Republican activists will be a more difficult sell.

Last week, at CPAC, Senator Tom Coburn introduced John McCain to many of these same conservatives by saying, “John may not always tell us what we want to hear, but what he tells us, he will do.”

And therein lies the problem for John McCain, as he now seeks to consolidate the Republican base for his presidential run. For McCain to maintain his appeal to independents, he must continue to be viewed as “straight-talker” who tells people things, “they don’t want to hear.” But as much as his policy positions, it is this image, and what McCain has done to obtain it, that drives many conservatives nuts.

For example, it is not just that Senator McCain opposes opening ANWR for oil drilling, but that he implies that those who support drilling in ANWR (the bulk of his party) would favor drilling in the Grand Canyon, something not remotely comparable and something no conservative wants to do. It is not just that he promoted restrictions on political speech, but he felt it necessary to call fellow Republican senators “corrupt.” It is not only that he was less than enthusiastic about the agenda of many evangelicals, but that he felt it necessary to call them, “agents of intolerance.” [JW: A small reality check: McCain never described evangelical Christians or Christian conservatives in general as "agents of intolerance"; he accused certain specific figures like "Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right," of acting as "agents of intolerance"--and Robertson & Falwell had certainly done a lot to merit this label.] "It was not enough for him to oppose President Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 – he felt the need to denounce them as “tax cuts for the rich” in leftist lingo that left most Democrats in the dust. The list could go on and on.

[JW: I can't resist noting, only half-facetiously, that these kinds of criticisms of McCain only remind me of his genuine virtues--and I suspect that they raise McCain's standing with much of the general electorate. Someone with a conspiratorial turn of mind might wonder whether McCain's campaign regards noisy right-wing attacks on McCain as, on balance, a public-relations asset for the November election.]

To many conservative Republicans, the problem is not that McCain is, “telling people what they don’t want to hear.” The problem is the exact opposite. They believe that Senator McCain is scoring cheap political points at their expense, by telling his audience – the Mainstream Media – exactly what it wants to hear. And while this rhetoric has built his reputation as a “Maverick,” it has involved repeatedly insulting and betraying some of his party’s most dedicated members in a most personal fashion. The MSM eats it up because it corresponds with their preconceptions about Republicans. They believe Republicans would drill in the Grand Canyon; they believe Bush’s tax cuts were give aways to the rich [JW: They were, of course.]; they believe Mitch McConnell and other Republicans opposed to campaign finance reform are “corrupt”; they believe that religious conservatives are “agents of intolerance.” And John McCain is perceived as having played up to them to build his own reputation, at the expense of conservatives.

In this scenario, Senator McCain has no claim to the votes or support of these conservatives. Conservatives may yet give Senator McCain their support, but he has no right to expect it. Many of Senator McCain’s backers have reacted with irritation and anger at those who have balked at supporting McCain, and their irritation seems all the greater because so many of them supported Senator McCain for his “electability.” But it was eminently predictable that Senator McCain’s nomination would split the party in this fashion – it nearly did in 2000, and McCain’s behavior in the intervening seven years has scarcely been calculated to solve that problem. You cannot treat people in the fashion that Senator McCain has over a long period of time, and then expect them to fall into line at the drop of a hat.

Moreover, if Senator McCain is truly a “straight-talker” who tells people “things they don’t want to hear,” then we must take these types of comments – many of them repeated several times, some of them part of set piece speeches – as his true beliefs. In that case, it appears that Senator McCain really hopes to lead into battle a group of people he considers to be boorish, stupid, yahoos. It is understandable if this doesn't inspire the troops. If he is merely scoring political points, well, the “straight talking” image goes by the boards.

The dilemma for those unwilling to hop on the McCain bandwagon is the recognition that the election is about more than Senator McCain and such slights as he has so freely given. The United States is at war and, it increasingly appears, on the brink of recession.

Senator McCain is not so liberal as many conservatives have recently suggested. He is basically a conservative Republican senator who periodically – albeit in often spectacular fashion – deviates from party orthodoxy. However, he is also not so conservative as his raw ACU voting score might suggest, since he seems to reserve most of his legislative efforts for his liberal dalliances. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that conservatives would, in overwhelming numbers, put aside Senator McCain’s personal slights for the good of the country, if that was called for.

Unfortunately, it is not entirely clear that Senator McCain’s election would be good for the country. Michael Rappaport, a thoughtful law professor at the University of San Diego and an influential thinker in Federalist Society circles, argues that in the long run, it is better if Senator McCain is defeated. He writes,
“If McCain wins, the Republicans will have a President who pursues a set of policies that will include many undesirable things. This will have one of two effects (or possibly a combination). Either the Republicans will be transformed to the party of these undesirable things – campaign finance, more regulation, which is a really bad thing – or they will fight among themselves, greatly weakening the McCain presidency. In either event, the McCain presidency is unlikely to be successful from the perspective of a free market Republican – it either will pursue bad policies or will be ineffective. If, as seems likely, those policies turn out to be unsuccessful, it will be the Republicans who will be blamed for them.”
The problem may be even worse than Professor Rappaport believes. Last week on RedState the question was asked, “how do we conservatives going about the business of ensuring that next time - 2012, 2016 - we get a more conservative nominee?” I noted that to get a better nominee in 2012, Senator McCain almost certainly has to lose in 2008, or he will be the nominee again in 2012. Moreover, if Senator McCain wins this year but is unsuccessful as President, he will likely be voted out in 2012, and after the undeserved but very real unpopularity of President Bush’s second term, an unpopular McCain presidency would virtually assure two terms for the Democrats. On the other hand, if a successful President McCain serves two terms, it is very unlikely that a Republican will win in 2016 – only once since Reconstruction has a party won five consecutive presidential elections (the Democrats of Roosevelt and Truman, who held the presidency for 20 consecutive years). In short, McCain’s election in 2008 makes it highly unlikely that a true believer in limited government could win the presidency any time before 2020, at the earliest. A McCain win, in other words, can be seen to doom conservatives to the wilderness for many years, with corresponding long term policy defeats.

The argument to abandon these doubts and support McCain resolves around a few key issues. One is judges. [....] Second, Senator McCain will probably be better for the economy. But he cannot stop the Bush tax cuts from expiring, and given his denunciations of those cuts as “giveaways to the rich,” he is, among Republicans, uniquely ill-positioned to pressure the Democratic Congress on them. His opposition to pork is nice but would be far more than offset by his likely policies on pharmaceuticals, global warming, and other economic and regulatory issues. McCain opposes “pork” but does not speak broadly about reducing the size and scope of government. [....] Finally, and most important, is the war. McCain has gained great credit as a resolute supporter of the “Surge” in Iraq, but there is, for some at least, a disquieting sense that this is less due to any prescience on Senator McCain’s part, rather than the phenomenon of a stopped clock being right twice a day.

The ultimate problem facing McCain may be that those Republicans who are most likely to believe that a Democratic administration would be a disaster are those most offended by Senator McCain’s past words and actions. [....]

Meanwhile, I plan to work this fall to support Republicans in House and especially Senate races, where it is important we retain enough votes to support filibusters. I would not, do not, tell others not to vote for or support McCain. But I cannot be critical of those who decide that McCain will not be their man in 2008.

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