Overselling McCain doesn't help

Distinguished former state senator Mark Hillman yesterday on these Backbone America pages joined the chorus of Republicans advocating for an “at least he’s not Hillary or Obama” vote for John McCain in November. Hillman pays lipservice to Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and James Dobson, all of whom are being candid about McCain, but then portrays a vote for McCain as the only move consistent with our principles. Withholding such a vote, he claims, is “suicidal self-indulgence” and “personal pride and prejudice,” and will result in “surrendered freedoms, suffocating tax burdens, and national insecurity” that will be “as much our responsibility as that of those we ‘helped’ to elect.”

This isn’t the way to persuade conservatives, Senator.

This kind of pragmatism-masquerading-as-principle thinking in the GOP is precisely why some of us are considering sitting this presidential election out and focusing on down-ballot candidates who are genuinely people of principle. Enough is enough, and if this weak-kneed party is ever going to develop real backbone again, it’s going to take a revolt of conservatives from within, not a tame, obedient rollover for every lame GOP beltway insider who arises.

In the meantime, if you want to tease conservatives to the polls in support of McCain this year, I suggest a better strategy is to start being candid about what a weak candidate he is, dispensing with both the recitations of how strong he is on this or that issue and the helium about “this election is about principles that will guide our country for the next four years” – that conviction is the reason McCain is in trouble in the first place.

I submit a better strategy is a more humble one: I’m voting for McCain, but I understand if you’re not. He’s weak, and, currently, our party is weak. It’s not clear at all in this case what the right thing to do is. The late William F. Buckley and National Review did something similar in 1956, running a tepid endorsement of Eisenhower entitled not, “We Like Ike,” but “We Prefer Ike.” He was, they thought, given his acceptance of the New Deal and merely mild opposition to Communist expansion, only the lesser of two evils.

That kind of candor has the potential to be persuasive, especially given John McCain is to the left of Eisenhower.

On McCain’s alleged toughness on national defense, here is a story about his joining Democrats in supporting the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Says the story:

“McCain wants to close Guantanamo, he says, because its existence is damaging U.S. credibility abroad. He also wants to speed up trials. ‘He would want to speed up the tribunal process for prisoners, because he doesn't support indefinite detentions,’ McCain spokesman Danny Diaz says.”

This is straight liberal dogma about Guantanamo and puts McCain to the left of all other 2008 presidential candidates except Ron Paul on the issue and to the left of a vast majority of national Republicans.

On McCain’s alleged fiscal and economic conservatism, Sen. Hillman mentions in passing Sen. McCain’s opposition to Bush’s tax cuts. Here is Club for Growth’s take on the matter, entitled “John McCain Is No Supply-Sider.”

Then there was the “Gang of 14” circus led by McCain that, as he did on so many other occasions, undercut Senate GOP leadership in its attempt to prevent Democrat use of the filibuster in opposition to the judicial nomination of Judge Samuel Alito and future such nominations. Senate Republicans had a 55-45 majority in the Senate at the time and could have changed Senate rules to prevent the filibuster from ever being so used again. (The Constitution requires only a majority vote for confirmation of the president’s judges, not the super-majority required to defeat a filibuster.) McCain led the movement to stop that change and was hailed by the media, as he has been on so many other occasions, as a “bipartisan, moderate” hero.

And we are supposed to believe his judicial appointments will be heroic constitutionalists?

The judicial nominations of Reagan and the two Bushes have included Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter. True, they have also included Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito -- as well as several other legal greats who, thanks partially to wimpy Republicans like John McCain, didn’t make it through the confirmation process. But they clearly included a few mediocrities as well, and given McCain is to the political left of Reagan and both Bushes, the likelihood that he will appoint anyone like Scalia or Thomas, for instance, with a Democrat-controlled Senate is simple naivete. The kind of justices McCain would appoint is entirely up for grabs.

Then there is McCain-Feingold. And we are supposed to be worried about the freedoms we will surrender under Obama or HRC? McCain said just last week that, if he could do it, he’d shut down 527’s as well.

The list could go on. There is no question there are some areas where McCain’s record is better than Obama’s or HRC’s – the list could probably be counted on one hand and definitely on two – and if McCain were running as a Democrat, we could without angst hope for his successful nomination as the best that party had to offer. The problem is that he is running as a Republican, bringing a long record of weakness and betrayal toward conservatives and the conservative movement with him under that banner. This creates a deceptive, mendacious candidacy that, like the presidency of Richard Nixon, holds the potential to do so much long-term damage to the GOP and its prospects for forming sustainable governing majorities in the future that many rightly wonder now if a Democrat victory in November is really the worse result.

If this seems like overstatement, think Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. McCain is to the left of both of them. Then think Bill Owens in Colorado.

The usual election-year pragmatism that is becoming current in GOP circles, and that will become more current as the election approaches, is laying the groundwork for the inevitable reaction among GOP elites if McCain does lose to Obama or Clinton in November: conservatives are to blame, and this further shows what Neanderthals they are (especially those nasty evangelical Christian types) with no political sense. If only they’d come out for McCain, he might have won. Let’s join Sen. Trent Lott and “do something about this talk radio problem” so it doesn’t bite us again.

So the 2008 history of the GOP goes: nominate a blue-blood, media-hungry Republican who’s been running for president for over a decade, whose record is pathetic on most things conservatives care about most deeply, sap thereby the central source of principled strength in the party, send out officious memos to state party chapters and conservatives everywhere telling them not to criticize Obama too toughly, and put pressure on everyone, everywhere to get on board the McCain bandwagon or be responsible for electing Obama or Hillary.

What a winner of a strategy. What a heroic, unflinching adherence to what we believe even in the face of adverse political tides!

I have a better idea. Let’s get conservative again. Let’s start actually being people of principle who put principle over pragmatism instead of just telling people that’s what we do. Let’s start learning from the people who are opposing McCain instead of bad-mouthing and marginalizing them. If we start to do this again, perhaps we’ll understand afresh what “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” means, what the sources of America’s greatness are, and how we can recover them again once the disastrous candidacy of John McCain is, mercifully, at an end.