In Focus: McCain the Gestalt Candidate

Red meat conservatives think John McCain's indulgence of leftish policies on global warming, evangelicalism, torture, judicial filibusters, gay marriage, and immigration makes him a dangerous beggar at the feast. Ann Coulter has said, in her spindly cabaret way, that she'd rather vote for Hillary Clinton (Barack Obama should approve that message while it's still good). Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham sputter over the airwaves about a closet Democrat basking sacrilegiously in the aura of Ronald Reagan. Even the intellectual deacon of arch-conservatism, Jeffrey Hart, has declared for Obama, the senator with the most liberal voting record.

So how can McCain alienate so many natural allies and still nab the GOP nomination, as he looks all but certain to do tomorrow? The answer is that much like Obama, he's a gestalt candidate-his whole is greater than the sum of his parts, and people tend to like the whole.

Independents could scarcely care about his conservative credentials, which are actually stronger than Reagan's on a host of issues. To them, his status as the self-effacing Rescue Dawn war hero is unimpeachable. He demonstrated the kind of self-sacrifice and bravery in extremis that no other national politician in recent or distant memory has done. And as the scion of an American military aristocracy, McCain seems at least as willing to demand of his nuclear family what his forebears demanded of him. This attitude has also endeared him to wide swaths of the antiwar left, which actually profess to share-if only because it's politically expedient-McCain's philosophy of mandatory military service: he's flirted with bringing back the draft. At any rate, no idiotic "chicken hawk" epithet can apply to a veteran and father of two enlisted sons.

That McCain also opposes "severe interrogation methods," and is able to tell you what it's like to undergo them, also impresses moderates and swing-voters immune to party-think. Indeed, if the race does boil down to Clinton and McCain, there'll be only one anti-torture candidate running for president, and it won't be the Democrat.

Right-wingers who find him too erratic and too willing to mug for the base-his disastrous attempted courtship of the religious right comes to mind-nevertheless see McCain as principled and consistent on foreign policy and his opposition to totalitarianism. (Even the keeper of the Romney personality cult, Hugh Hewitt, ungrudgingly concedes the point.) Where Joe Lieberman has been unable to cast himself as a Scoop Jackson Democrat, McCain has had some success in becoming a kind of Pat Moynihan Republican.

As he famously said on Larry King, "I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war." This would seem self-righteous coming from any other candidate (and can you imagine it coming from any other?), none of whom would have said it at a time when the war was being described as "lost." If character is king to the party of "moral values," then McCain is clearly the anointed, and no amount of shrill punditry is going to alter that perception among the people responsible for putting him in the White House.

Jeff Jacoby at the Boston Globe makes the case that McCain is a good conservative: "[T]here 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."

Eugene Volokh told the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire that former Solicitor General Ted Olson's endorsement of McCain underscores the conservative kinship: "Given that Ted Olson is such a prominent and well respected conservative lawyer whose conservative credentials are in no doubt, my sense is some conservatives who might otherwise have some reservations about McCain might have, in some considerable measure, their concerns eased."

"What are we asking this man to do as President?" asks Randy Mott of Mott's Blog. "Up and away the most important duty of the President because it is his alone is to protect the nation and deal with foreign countries who often do not have our national interests at heart... We know that Senator McCain has stamina and personal courage. We saw it in his early support for the surge and his refusal to waiver on Iraq, despite the poplar pressure at the time that appeared to make this issue one that would cost him the nomination."

Another interesting endorsement of McCain came from Lloyd C. Daugherty, chairman of the Tennessee Conservative Union. Daugherty wrote: "I don't always agree with John McCain, but I have always admired him. He suffered and fought for his country and prevailed. Perhaps that's why I've been sickened by the attacks on him by some Washington-based conservatives this week. One went so far as to say that McCain is more liberal than Hillary Clinton.... I always knew one thing about Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, which is that the country came before person, principle came before party and philosophy came before personal profit."

Gullyborg at Resistance is futile scolds his fellow righties: "If McCain wins, and against the super-polarizing Hillary Clinton, he might win even without the conservative base, then the conservative movement is essentially dead. We will have no sway with McCain if we don't support his candidacy. If he can win without us, he is free to write us off forever. He will be free to lead with moderate-liberal ideas, and all the pressure from the right will mean nothing to him."

Even NRO's Kathryn Jean Lopez, another loud Romney booster, hits upon one theme among conservative voters who are going for McCain: "[S]ocial conservatives will do better under a president who doesn't care about social issues than one who does, but sometimes strays on issues. I think this may, in fact, be a calculation on the minds of conservative voters. I think it's wrong. But it's out there."

Michael Weiss is the New York Editor of Pajamas Media. His blog is Snarksmith.