There's a fascinating irony to John McCain's de facto victory in the race for the Republican nomination. While the self-styled independent maverick is arguably the best "change" candidate the Republicans could offer in the general election (itself ironic given that he has been in Washington longer than any other GOP contender), McCain wasn't the change candidate in the primaries. And GOP voters wanted change, too.
There are lots of reasons, some good, some bad, for conservatives' angry dyspepsia toward McCain. I have bouts of it myself. From campaign-finance reform to his proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants to his general tendency to burnish his own maverick street rep by triangulating off conservatives, McCain just seems to relish breaking ranks too much.
But that raises an interesting and remarkably undiscussed question for McCain's detractors: Who are you really mad at?
Most of the criticisms aimed at McCain can be directed at President Bush himself. Campaign-finance reform is a great example. Most conservatives think McCain's effort to regulate political speech is an unconstitutional abomination. But in fairness to McCain, he doesn't think that. You know who does? George W. Bush. The president signed the McCain-Feingold bill though he admitted that he thought it was unconstitutional. But as a "uniter not a divider," Bush felt it wasn't his place to veto an unconstitutional law his oath of office notwithstanding that was very popular, particularly with independents, centrist Democrats and the New York Times crowd.
Amnesty for illegal immigrants? To be sure, McCain was a big player last year in pushing legislation many on the right detest. But the biggest player of all was, again, Bush. Whatever your disagreements with McCain on immigration might be, it's pretty much impossible not to have the same disagreements with the president who campaigned in 2000 insisting that "family values don't end at the Rio Grande." Indeed, before the 9/11 attacks, Bush wanted to make Mexico, not Great Britain, our No. 1. ally.
You can go on like this for quite a while. If you point to McCain's very conservative record on judges, his detractors will dismiss it, saying they don't trust his instincts. Didn't McCain say something about Justice Samuel Alito being too conservative? they ask. Well, didn't Bush's instincts guide him to naming White House insider Harriet Miers before conservatives revolted and forced him to choose again? McCain opponents note that while the senator talks a big game about cutting pork from the budget, he's still a big regulator and friend of activist government. This is fair, to some extent, but they forget that it was President Bush who pushed through the biggest expansion of the welfare state since the Great Society with his prescription drug benefit a plan McCain opposed and promises to scale back.
According to many pundits, McCain won the Republican Party's "anti-Bush" wing, made up of moderates and independents. But this is largely a media-driven narrative imposed on a somewhat different reality. There is, in fact, a much broader anti-Bush sentiment in the party. The "right wing" of the GOP is suffering from a deep buyer's remorse of its own.
In 2000, conservatives supported Bush despite his insistence that he was a "different kind of Republican" and his insistence that he was a bipartisan bridge builder. He wasn't like those mean conservatives of the Reagan-Gingrich period; he was a "compassionate conservative." Many on the right overlooked this stuff, believing it was unfortunate but necessary marketing for Republicans at the end of the Clinton years. After 9/11, disagreements with Bush were displaced by the need to support the commander in chief in the war on terror. Even now, conservative frustration with the pre-surge fumbles in Iraq remains very high, but muted. Indeed, many on the right who do support McCain do so precisely because he would have "surged" from Day One of the Iraq invasion.
Conservatives supported Bush in 2000 for numerous reasons, including the fact that he seemed the best candidate to win back the White House. But one reason for his success in winning conservative support was that he just seemed like "one of us." He carried himself like a conservative. He spoke like a conservative. He was an evangelical Christian and pro-life Texan who reassured much of the base by telegraphing that he was on the right side of the culture wars. As political positioning, this was brilliant stuff. Aesthetically, he played to the hearts of the right while politically he promised to be something of a centrist, almost Clintonian, president without the seedy soft-core porn baggage.
In terms of body language, the contrast with McCain couldn't be more stark. Bush has always been the sort of politician who relishes being loathed by The New York Times. McCain simply loves being loved by the Times and the national media generally. It's his base.
But substantively, the differences between McCainism and Bushism are very narrow, and the question of who is more conservative is more open than many on the right are comfortable asking. Hence, projection and guilt might explain at least some of the venom toward McCain. A lot of powerful emotions can be conjured by the sentiment: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
Everyone wants a change candidate this year. As the out-of-power party, Democrats have it much easier marketing themselves that way. But conservatives want change, too. And for many of them, McCain doesn't represent change but continuity. They just can't say so.
McCain is presented with a dilemma. How can he rally the conservatives to his flag without alienating the moderates and independents the GOP needs to win in November? As nothing in politics needs to be clear-cut, he will probably try to do both as best he can, much as he did in his recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. At CPAC and elsewhere, McCain insists he's an unchanging conservative. But he might do better with his right flank if he can make the case that with him, we might get a conservative in the White House, for a change.