John McCain is clearly the preferable option for conservative voters come November. Although liberal in his views toward immigration, government intrusion in free speech, environmental issues, campaign finance reform, health care, education mandates, and a host of other issues that run contrary to conservative orthodoxy, McCain is solid on two (alas, two) vital issues that make the difference; spending and judges. From the frustration of eight years of a Republican Administration that began with so much hope and promise it pains one to say it, but there it is.
Against the prospects of a President Obama, McCain wins.
A victim of circumstances and timing in many ways, Senator McCain carries the sins of Bush and the free-spending Republicans into the 2008 election minus any counter balancing virtues. The coming election has an eerie deja-vu feeling. The Democrat nominee is young, glib, dare one say it, slick; beloved by a media most happy to shield him from criticism. He is facing a cranky old Republican Senator with visible war wounds, famous for his temper, and viewed with apprehension by the religious right.
In addition, John McCain is detested, and deservedly so, by many Republicans of all types. Beyond issue and policy differences, and they are legion, his personality grates. His conceit of "straight-talk" and "maverick"-like independence so superficially applauded (up until now) by the mainstream media is almost Clintonesque in its narcissism. If only other politicians had his courage, he implies, things would be fixed straightaway. The big special interests have all the other elected officials in their pockets. Only Maverick-John tells it like it is! Yet the truth is that McCain could serve well as poster boy of the arrogant elitist beltway insider, friend of Hillary and Ted, foe of the unwashed. The party habit of selecting the next in line (e.g. Dole) has rarely produced such an unappealing candidate at such a critical time. In many ways he reminds one of Adlai Stevenson, who famously frustrated his supporters with his holier-than-thou ways during two failed contests against the popular broad-smiling Ike.
Despite what will surely be the focus of McCain's campaign, foreign policy and experience will not decide this election for conservative voters. One may point to the war in Iraq as the defining issue come November and see a big advantage for McCain. Not necessarily so. History will decide the wisdom of our foreign policy over the last seven years, whether the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions were a legitimate response to the threat of organized terror, or the overreaction of predisposed warriors intent on using the events of 9/11 to democratize the Middle East.
It is clear, in the short term that a McCain administration will cling to the ongoing military effort. He is a very sure bet on a continuation of aggressive and largely unilateral foreign policy. But unlike domestic issues, Presidents, as Truman said, "ride the Tiger" in foreign affairs. They are controlled by events and often forced into moves at odds with their original intentions. Bush came into office as a critic of nation building and yet leaves committed to the rebuilding of Iraq. Johnson's Great Society fell victim to his own escalation of the Vietnam War. Clinton sent troops to Haiti. As Chief Executive of the federal branch they must protect our borders and command the military by constitutional decree. Democrats, even Carter, have found that once in office the requirements and prerogatives of military power seldom are resisted.
On domestic issues it is no better. He is with Kennedy on education and immigration, with Fiengold on campaign finance, with Gore on the environment. For the committed conservative, he speaks and acts as Bush-lite without the few rhetorical bones thrown in for appearance's sake. Each day, it seems, he appears to make a pronouncement, or suggest a policy, or chastise an enthusiastic supporter, in order to please the main-stream media and send conservatives off wailing and gnashing their teeth.
So the question of the day is how can a candidate that turns off a large portion of his base, who will most certainly be put on the defensive by a biased media, who appears old and uncool to the great unlettered new generation of voters, succeed?
"Front Porch" campaigns put several Republicans in the White House starting with Abraham Lincoln. In the good old days Presidential candidates found it undignified and unbecoming to campaign for votes all over the country. They let their surrogates and followers go through the unending exercises so necessary yet so unseemly in the election process. Incessant bragging, boasting, and cajoling, voicing hypocritical platitudes, and bribing voters with empty promises and spending sprees in search of Utopia was not the stuff of our Founding Fathers. McCain would benefit from a restoration of this practice but in the age of 24/7 cable news and Internet blogs this is not practical.
McCain must recognize that he has some substantial advantages, chiefly his opponent's weaknesses. Also, conservatives, though unhappy, will do the right thing for the country if only through a sense of duty. Further, experience and genuine heroism are good to have on your resume.
But McCain also must recognize the depth of conservative despondency. He will not win by giving his base a reason to stay home. Unlike liberals, conservatives have lives and interests outside politics that serve as outlets for the impulse to do good and improve the world. And they are angry and demoralized, make no mistake.
For many voters and activists, thirty years of hard work in the conservative fields has produced a bitter harvest of uncontrolled spending, judicial legislation, preposterous congressional pork barrel earmarks, uncontrolled borders, and arrogance.
McCain is in a fight against the manufactured illusions of "hope" and history. He needs every vote he can manage. Before he once again decides to berate conservatives, propose liberal policies, befriend the political opposition and (why?) laud the Clintons, he should perhaps better find a nice photogenic porch. Sit on the porch. Do this and conservatives on November 5th will surely hold their noses and pull the lever for what is best for the country.