Jewish World Review March 1, 2000 / 24 Adar I, 5760
Virginia Beach, Feb. 28
With these and other equally blunt words, delivered on a primary's eve in the belly of the beast, John McCain made it official and irrevocable: He is not running to win the White House as the leader of the Republican Party as it is currently constituted; he is running to win as the leader of a new Republican Party, one that would not include as important players the Christian right preacher-politicians who have long dominated the party that exists now.
It is possible to view McCain's Virginia Beach speech as merely tactical. Assuming that he was going to lose Virginia to George W. Bush anyway, McCain decided to tell off Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on their home turf in order to (1) further, and greatly, encourage centrist Republicans, crossover Democrats and independents to vote for him in states where he has a better chance, such as Washington, New York and California, and (2) media-inoculate himself against the effects of a Virginia loss. This is more or less analogous to what McCain did in Iowa, where he offset what he knew would be a heavy loss to Bush by grandstanding his opposition to government subsidies for ethanol-producing farmers, thus providing a rationale for what would have happened anyway.
And it is possible to view the speech as merely strategic. Knowing that the hard-core religious right is lost to him regardless, McCain made a show of heaving over those who had never been aboard in the first place, figuring that this would help him reach the Republican nomination with his coalition of pluralities, and he would then, in the general election, win back a goodly number of the conservative party regulars he had chosen to infuriate--after all, they are hardly going to vote for Al Gore.
Of course, the speech was tactical and strategic, and on this level it was a good deal less audacious than it was designed to appear. McCain knows that he gains much but loses little by denouncing two of the religious right's most prominent leaders (men who have already urged their followers to vote against McCain) as parasites on the Republican body electorate. And McCain was careful to exempt from his denunciation the powerful James Dobson, who does not support McCain but has not openly acted against him.
But the Virginia Beach speech was more than this. McCain crossed a true line on Monday. He not only rejected Falwell and Robertson, he rejected the idea of the Republican Party as defined by the absolutist values of the religious right--which is to say, he rejected the Republican Party as it stands. McCain made it clear that he would allow Christian conservatives a place at the table, but a relatively small place--just another mouth to feed. He would stand with the social conservatives on some causes, but they would be competing for favor on an issue by issue basis, and they would be competing against the people who elected McCain--people who either are opposed to, or do not care about, their crusade. The result would be a Republican majority in which the Christian right would be a marginalized minority.
This is what McCain promised in Virginia Beach, and this promise is a large one. But, again, it is not necessarily as high-risk as it may seem. McCain is recognizing not what is probable, but what has already occurred. The hour of the Christian right is well past. The movement has been without effective leadership for years, and rank-and-file Christian activists have grown profoundly demoralized by their failure to achieve their goals through the political process, and have turned away from it. As Margaret Talbot reported in a recent cover story in the New York Times magazine, Christian activists who 10 years ago were seeking to remake the secular world in God's image now seek only to escape that world.
The Republican candidate who bows to the religious right is bowing not to
might but (mostly) to memory. The Republican candidate who kicks the
religious right (now that it is fairly safely down) is also playing to memory.
But the first candidate is binding himself to past power. The second is
exploiting the past to build a future
02/24/00: McCain's Majority