The story from California
last week was bound to alarm conservatives. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
endorsed John McCain for president at a solar technology plant. Rudy Giuliani,
who's also backing McCain, joined the lovefest as an uninvited but very welcome
guest. And McCain talked about the Republican party as a "big tent,"
a phrase often used as code for appealing to moderates and ignoring
It's not that bad, though. McCain, now the likely Republican nominee, seems
to understand that his first order of business is not merely mollifying
conservatives but winning them over and unifying the party. "The important
thing is to convince our Republican base, one, I'm a conservative," he
told Jay Leno. "Two, I'm the best qualified in taking on their major
Bringing conservatives on board won't be easy for McCain. (Nor would uniting
Republicans of all stripes be easy for Mitt Romney, should he upset the McCain
bandwagon and win the nomination.) Republicans are in a sour mood, especially
the talk-radio mafia that regards McCain as anything but a reliable
conservative. (They harbor qualms about Romney, too.)
Even a united Republican party will be at a disadvantage in the general
election. Democratic primary turnout has doubled from 2004, reflecting a level
of enthusiasm among Democrats that hasn't been seen for decades. And the party
has the money to fund another massive get-out-the-vote drive this November. In
2004, it took an unprecedented effort by 1.4 million Republican volunteers to overcome
the Democratic turnout machine manned by paid campaign workers.
The key to the 2004 success was the passionate commitment of these
volunteers to reelecting George W. Bush. These weren't moderates or
independents or McCainiacs. They were hardcore conservatives--and particularly
social conservatives attracted by Bush's opposition to abortion, gay rights,
and embryonic stem cell research.
McCain needs to attract hundreds of thousands of these Republicans as ground
troops for his campaign. He's off to a good start. In a new TV ad dubbed
"True Conservative," he refers to himself as "a proud social
conservative who will never waver." He's expected to get the endorsement
soon of the National Right to Life Committee, the influential anti-abortion
group, and that will help.
But he's got a long ways to go. Bush spent five years courting social
conservatives before his first presidential run. Despite a strong pro-life
voting record in the Senate, McCain has never been a favorite of social
conservatives, nor has he tried to be. He has an opportunity to embrace them
publicly this week when he addresses the Conservative Political Action
Conference (CPAC) in Washington.
He should seize it.
On economic issues, McCain has gotten better. He's always advocated spending
cuts and opposed earmarks. Now he says the two Bush tax cuts should be made
permanent. Why? If they were allowed to expire in 2010, income tax rates would
rise, and he's against tax increases. Given this view, McCain might as well
make a stark pledge: No new taxes.
On national security, McCain's credentials are dazzling. When other
Republicans grew queasy about Iraq
after the party's landslide defeat in the 2006 election, McCain grew stronger.
He proposed a "surge" of additional American troops and a new
counterinsurgency strategy many months before President Bush adopted it.
McCain's touchiest problem--his scourge--is talk radio. Rush
Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and others raise legitimate complaints
about his flirtations with Democrats and his apostasy on campaign finance,
guns, immigration, and embryonic stem cell research.
A Republican strategist had this advice for McCain: "Call the top
conservative talk radio hosts. Tell them you don't question their independence.
But insist you'll be talking about conservative issues. If they want to get in
touch with you at any time, here's your cell phone number. And if they call,
you'll answer." That is good advice. McCain might feel it's demeaning, but
he shouldn't. The stakes--keeping Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama out of the
White House--are too high to be prideful.
McCain, probably alone among Republicans, can win this fall, but not without
the full-blown support of conservatives. If he continues to reach out to them
while running as a conservative, they need to heed Barry Goldwater's advice in
1960. "Let's grow up, conservatives," he said. "If we want to
take this party back, and I think we can, let's get to work."