Super Tuesday lived up to its billing for Sen. John McCain. Counted out as a contender as recently as this summer, McCain emerged from yesterday’s 21-state Republican slugfest one step closer to clinching the party’s nomination.
It’s a place where many observers -- not least countless Republicans -- never expected to find the Arizona Senator. The list of conservative exasperations with McCain is long and familiar. For starters, there is his disturbing penchant for economic demagoguery, as when he declared against President Bush’s tax cuts in 2001, and again in 2003, by claiming that they would benefit only the “most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans” -- a crude variation on the class-warfare rhetoric favored by Democrats. (McCain’s ex post facto rationalization that he opposed the tax cuts because they were not accompanied by spending cuts is easily refuted.) With so much bad blood between them, McCain’s more recent profession that “I support capitalism and the free enterprise system and that’s why we have various agencies of government to bring these things under control” will hardly convince fiscal conservatives that he grasps the wisdom of free markets.
The “War on Terror” is McCain’s stronger suite, but even here he has found a way to alienate would-be supporters. His call last March to shut down Guantanamo Bay seemingly showed more concern for the views of the “international community” than for American security interests. Legal experts like Andrew McCarthy, meanwhile, have plausibly argued that the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, a.k.a. the “McCain Amendment” would extend due-process rights to terrorists overseas -- a privilege traditionally reserved for American citizens -- and “could eventually shut down interrogations.” As for McCain’s opposition to certain forms of coercive interrogation, it is eminently deserving of respect, especially given his experiences as a P.O.W. in Vietnam. It would be a welcome change, however, if McCain occasionally extended the same respect to those who disagree with him on the issue. The senator’s dig that his GOP rivals’ lack of military experience somehow invalidated their views on interrogation practices was particularly graceless.
If yesterday’s election results proved anything, it is that McCain’s heresies on these and other issues will not keep him from surging -- and, if current trends hold, winning -- his party’s presidential nod. Exit polls from New Jersey, a state McCain won easily on his way to conquering much of the North East, underscored the point. Whether voters strongly approved of the Iraq war, strongly disapproved, or anything in between, all considered McCain the best choice as wartime president. Even controlling for the fact that some of this was residual support from ex-Giuliani voters -- some 48 percent of Garden State Republicans considered the mayor’s endorsement important, and of these 71 percent supported McCain -- it was a clear signal that when it comes to the war against Islamic terrorism, many Republicans are prepared to defer to his judgment.
Likewise on the economy. With his storied career in the private sector, Mitt Romney was once a favorite to prevail among those most concerned about the country’s economic outlook. That proved not to be the case. In California, the nation’s leader in home foreclosures, the economy was ranked as the primary issue among Republican voters. Unhappily for Romney, 48 percent of these voters cast their lot with McCain, ideological warts and all. Yet again, McCain overcame his rift with the Right.
That was decidedly not the case on the issue that has generated the greatest friction between McCain and the Republican base: immigration. In recent weeks, commentators have had some sport at the expense of immigration restrictionists, contending that the furor over illegal immigration -- a furor directed particularly at McCain -- was much ado about nothing. Thus, one pundit averred that “the notion that immigration would be central has proven to be plain wrong.” Echoing the theme, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens sneered that opposition to illegal immigration was “fool's gold politics.”
On these ostensibly sophisticated readings, the fact that McCain had championed in-state tuition for illegal immigrants; that he had sponsored the justly reviled “comprehensive immigration reform” legislation with Sen. Edward Kennedy, a prescription for amnesty in all but name; and that he voted in favor of Arlen Specter‘s “Manager’s Amendment” to S. 2611 that would have effectively granted the Mexican government veto power over a border fence and ensured that it was never built -- all this was so much noisy nonsense.
Arizona voters would beg to differ. Exit polls revealed that nearly half of the voters in the state’s Republican primary -- 46 percent -- favored a hard line on illegal immigration. Of these, 48 percent swung toward Mitt Romney. In addition, 33 percent of the state’s voters judged illegal immigration the most important issue in the election, rating it ahead of the economy, terrorism, and Iraq. These voters, unsurprisingly, also turned against McCain, favoring Romney by 47 percent. And while McCain won in the end, the fact that he failed to garner the conservative vote in his home state mocks McCain’s effort to cast himself as Ronald Reagan’s political heir.
It was the same story in California, another state where the effects of mass illegal immigration have been most palpable. Asked how they would handle illegal immigrants, a majority of California Republicans (38 percent) preferred a harder line, and the majority, 40 percent, voted for Romney. And while McCain has altered his pitch on immigration, stressing that he would now make border security a top priority, this is one issue where Republicans were not prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
McCain’s loss was, of course, Romney’s gain. Yet Super Tuesday was anything but for Romney. Despite projected victories in five states -- two of which, Utah and Massachusetts, were must-wins -- Romney lost ground in the all-important delegate count. In the race for the 1,191 needed to win the nomination, Romney trails McCain by nearly three hundred. Equally dispiriting for his campaign, he is in danger of losing his silver-medal standing to Mike Huckabee, whose improbable success was the other big story of yesterday’s vote.
To be sure, Huckabee might have been getting ahead of himself when he declared that it was now “a two-man race” between him and McCain. But with his own record of spurning conservative policy preferences on everything from tax cuts to crime, the governor fortified suspicions that a McCain-Huckabee ticket might be in the offing. Republicans have had a difficult time coping with the idea of a sometime heretic at the top of their ticket. One wonders how they will deal with two.