Conservative Crisis: Is the GOP Lurching Left?
Senator John McCain's new frontrunner status has triggered an identity crisis among the conservative party activists and media figures who deeply disagree with many of his positions, writes Rick Moran. "McCain proudly calls himself a conservative. But what kind of a conservative is he? A better question may very well be how McCain supporters themselves define conservatism?"
January 31, 2008 - 12:00 am
They’re holding a wake over at National Review’s The Corner and it isn’t pretty. And they’re not the only ones. Most conservatives on the internet are acting depressed, bitter. Someone should take away their belts and shoelaces before we have a tragedy.
The John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” is barreling down the track with a full head of steam and seems unstoppable in its headlong dash for nomination victory.
Most conservatives are in shock. “How could this happen?” is the question of the hour. The funny thing is, there are thousands of answers to that question depending on who or what you want to blame. But the bottom line is that McCain -left for dead 6 months ago – battled back by the sheer force of his own indomitable will and picked himself off the floor to get himself back into the race and back on top.
You don’t survive 5 years in a North Vietnamese Prisoner of War camp by folding your tent and giving up. Compared to that, facing down Rush Limbaugh, the army of talk show hosts and conservative internet pundits who trash him on a daily basis is a cakewalk.
This is the admirable side of McCain. Unfortunately, this is not the side McCain prefers to present to conservatives or Republicans most of the time. This is why he may very well become the nominee of the Republican party but will not enjoy the enthusiastic support of many if not most of its activists.
But beyond the obvious relish McCain takes in tweaking the noses of conservatives by supporting anti-free speech campaign finance rules, immigration disasters, and other “maverick” impulses that seem to strike the Arizona senator from time to time, there is another reason conservatives find McCain such a problematic candidate; they don’t trust his conservative instincts.
McCain proudly calls himself a conservative. But what kind of a conservative is he? A better question may very well be how McCain supporters themselves define conservatism? If McCain is going to be the nominee and he is rejected by those who you would think define conservatism for the movement and the party, it stands to reason that McCain supporters are either not conservative or have redefined the term to mean something slightly different.
Exit polls show both dynamics at work. In the 2000 Florida primary, 58% of GOP voters identified themselves as “conservative” while 42% said they were “moderate” or liberal.” (Bush dominated the Florida primary and won all three groups handily.)
But what’s up with this? The 2008 exit polls from Florida show an even larger percentage of voters identifying themselves as “conservative” (61%) while only 39% said they were “moderate” or liberal.” And yet with two candidates in the race – Romney and Huckabee – who everyone agrees were more “conservative” than McCain, the Arizona senator won going away.
A breakdown of the conservative vote shows that McCain bested Romney by 35%-32% among those who identify themselves as “somewhat conservative” while dominating among “moderates” by a 2-1 margin over Romney. The significance is that while Romney creamed McCain among those who identified themselves as “very conservative,” there were much fewer of those voters than moderates and lesser conservatives. Those two groups made up a majority (55%) of the GOP vote and McCain won both groups with ease.
It could very well be that what we are seeing in the Republican party is a redefining – or perhaps more accurately, a “readjustment” – in how people identify themselves as conservatives.
Part of it could very well be based on issues. There may be many moderate and moderately conservative Republicans, as Jennifer Rubin muses in The Observer, who wish the party to do something about climate change despite the adamant opposition of many in the base. It could very well be that there is close to a majority of Republicans who want to solve the illegal immigrant problem by closing the border and then granting some kind of path to legality to those already here.
The proof is in the pudding, friends. John McCain supports those positions and is the presumptive nominee. All other GOP candidates opposed those positions and are toast.
While these positions would have been seen as “moderate” 8 years ago, those McCain supporters who identify themselves as “somewhat conservative” may also hold positions on continuing the mission in Iraq, fiscal responsibility, pro-life, anti-gay marriage, and other issues where they would find agreement with the base.
Does this mean that the party has lurched leftward while no one was looking? Perhaps not as much as it would appear but more than the base is willing to admit. But one explanation for McCain’s success could be very simply that many of his supporters have redefined for themselves what they consider conservatism to mean.
To date, McCain has yet to receive more than a third of all conservative votes. And as Rich Lowry points out, the Arizona senator has yet to win a majority of Republican voters:
Has this ever happened before? This is kind of amazing. I’m looking at CNN exit polls at the numbers for self-identified Republicans. McCain lost self-identified Republicans by a point in New Hampshire (oddly, he won registered Republicans); he lost self-identified Republicans by 14 points in Michigan; and he tied among self-identified Republicans in South Carolina and Florida. In other words, McCain is close to the presumptive nominee GOP nominee without having won self-identified Republican voters anywhere.
Of course, the candidate’s attraction to independents and moderates is what makes him so electable in so many people’s eyes. But at what cost to the principles of conservatism? Would a self described “proud conservative” President McCain govern from the right or even right of center?
This is what has Rush Limbaugh and the conservative commentariat reaching for the Tums when contemplating a McCain presidency.
And with at least some Republicans redefining in their own mind what the term “conservative” means, we may be witnessing a shift in influence from what traditionally has been known as the base of the party to the more moderate and moderately conservative elements of the GOP, illuminated by some of the positions on issues taken by Senator McCain that have set many conservatives against him.
Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.