It is not news that much of the conservative base bitterly opposes John McCain
and is appalled that the man they consider a Republican apostate could soon be
the GOP's presidential nominee. From talk radio to the blogosphere to the
conservative press, many on the right are outraged that what Mitt Romney last
week called "the House that Reagan Built" the modern Republican Party
might anoint as its standard-bearer the candidate who by their lights is the
least likely to follow in the Gipper's footsteps.
Conservatives bristle at the thought of a Republican president who might raise
income and payroll taxes. Or enlarge the federal government instead of
shrinking it. Or appoint Supreme Court justices who are anything but strict
constructionists. Or grant a blanket amnesty to millions of illegal aliens.
Now, I don't believe that a President McCain would do any of those things. But
President Reagan did all of them. Reagan also provided arms to the Khomeini
theocracy in Iran, presided over skyrocketing budget deficits, and ordered US
troops to cut and run in the face of Islamist terror in the Middle East. McCain
would be unlikely to commit any of those sins, either.
Does this mean that Reagan was not, in fact, a great conservative? Of course
not. Nor does it mean that McCain has not given his critics on the right
legitimate reasons to be disconcerted. My point is simply that the immaculate
conservative leader for whom so many on the right yearn to vote is a fantasy;
ideological purity and presidential politics are never a perfect fit.
Conservatives who say that McCain is no Ronald Reagan are right, but Mitt
Romney is no Ronald Reagan either. Neither is Mike Huckabee. And neither was
the real as opposed to the mythic Ronald Reagan.
The conservative case against McCain is clear enough; I made it myself in some
of these columns when he first ran for president eight years ago. The issues
that have earned McCain the label of "maverick" campaign-finance
restrictions, global warming, the Bush tax cuts, immigration, judicial
filibusters are precisely what stick in the craw of the GOP conservative
But this year, the conservative case *for* McCain is vastly more compelling.
On the surpassing national-security issues of the day confronting the threat
from radical Islam and winning the war in Iraq no one is more stalwart. Even
McCain's fiercest critics, such as conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, will
say so. "The world's bad guys," Hewitt writes, "would never for a moment think
he would blink in any
showdown, or hesitate to strike back at any enemy with the audacity to try again to
cripple the US through terror."
True enough, McCain was never an agenda-driven movement conservative. But he
"entered public life as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution," as he puts
it, and on the whole his record has been that of a robust and committed
conservative. He is a spending hawk and an enemy of pork and earmarks. He has never
voted to increase taxes, and wants the Bush tax cuts made permanent for the best of
reasons: "They worked." He is a staunch free-trader and a champion of school choice.
He is unabashedly prolife and pro-Second Amendment. He opposes same-sex marriage. He
wants entitlements reined in and personal retirement accounts expanded.
McCain's conservatism has usually been more a matter of gut instinct than of a
rigorous intellectual worldview, and he has certainly deviated from Republican
orthodoxy on some serious issues. For all that, his ratings from conservative
watchdog groups have always been high. "Even with all the blemishes," notes
National Review, a leading journal of the right (and a backer of Romney),
"McCain has a more consistent conservative record than Giuliani or Romney. . .
. This is an abiding strength of his candidacy."
As a lifelong conservative, I wish McCain evinced a greater understanding that
limited government is indispensable to individual liberty. I wish he were more
skeptical of politically-correct environmentalism, and less inclined to expand
top-down regulation. Yet there is no candidate in either party who so
thoroughly embodies the conservatism of American honor and tradition as McCain,
nor any with greater moral authority to invoke it. For all his transgressions
and backsliding, McCain radiates integrity and steadfastness, and if his
heterodox stands have at times been infuriating, they also attest to his
resolve. Time and again he has taken an unpopular stand and stuck with it,
putting his career on the line when it would have been easier to go along with
A perfect conservative he isn't. But he is courageous and steady, a man of
character and high standards, a genuine hero. If "the House that Reagan Built"
is to be true this year to its best and highest ideals, it could do a lot worse
than unite behind John McCain.