An Ersatz Conservative


"John McCain has a lot of work to do to get the Republican Party solidly behind him."
Kris Kobach, Kansas GOP Chairman, 9 Feb 2008

As Republican Presidential hopeful Senator John McCain begins to look like the anointed nominee for the Republican Party, his obstacles are not necessarily growing any smaller. An entourage suffering from what has been termed "McCain-Derangement Syndrome" has begun a savage campaign against the Senator from Arizona. And they are not Democrats.

At the start of the campaign, when labels were being shed like light clothing on a summer day, one thing kept coming back to haunt McCain: he was not a "true" conservative. For David Frum of the American Enterprise Institute, who first encouraged George Bush to use the term "axis of evil", McCain is flawed, an ersatz conservative: liberal on immigration, liberal on taxation, questionable on gun rights. He may even be soft on gay rights. John Podhoretz of the conservative magazine Commentary suggests that McCain is disliked because "he is not a team player".

Right-wing darling Ann Coulter spearheads the anti-McCain drive. She prefers scattergun abuse to reflective commentary, and has intimated that she might leave the US – or at the very least vote for Hillary Clinton – if McCain is confirmed as the Republican nominee. But this pundit and self-proclaimed "angry minx", who once called Senator John Edwards a "faggot" and sees Christianity as a "fast-track program" to spiritual perfection, has made McCain-hating an article of faith.

Some of the following stems from her Young America’s Foundation address earlier this month. On McCain’s age: "[He] is working for the New York Times obituary." On McCain’s Prisoner of War record: "I know that [he was a POW]because he mentions it more often than [John] Kerry mentions Vietnam. There were thousands of POWs and we are not going to make all of them President." Voting for Clinton would be the necessary antidote, an unnatural alliance akin to the World War II alliance between the West and Generalissimo Stalin. She would not even compare McCain to Hitter – "Hitler had a coherent tax policy."

Rush Limbaugh, shock-jock heard on no less than 600 stations across the US, is another convert of McCain-hating. To a caller on his radio show, he claimed that voting for either McCain or former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee would kill the GOP. As Super Tuesday was taking place, Limbaugh insisted that McCain had embraced the left "in order to stab the back of his own party". A letter of plea from the 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole to tone down the vitriol was rebuffed. Limbaugh could only assume that Dole had been "manipulated" by the McCain campaign.

Other radio personalities, like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, assume similar positions. McCain, claimed Ingraham on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox program, conspired with "liberals" to curtail free speech, sabotage Bush’s tax cuts, and offer amnesty to illegal immigrants. The GOP, laments another conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, has lost its "soul", and McCain’s success so far is a symptom of it. Like Coulter, a McCain nomination would lead Beck to cross the floor. The Clintons must be amused. The very people who made Hillary-hating a pastime in the 1990s are flocking to her in droves.

Commentators can barely believe it. CNN contributor Roland S Martin could only call such tribal invective "irrational and hysterical", more than a touch "silly" . McCain’s enemies do not necessarily reflect rank-and-file opinion within the GOP – a Pew Poll suggests that McCain’s approval lies at a healthy 72 percent, with only 19 distinctly unhappy. His voting record, far from being liberal, is solidly conservative.

What are the alternatives? Mitt Romney has suspended his campaign, disabling a crucial anti-McCain front in the process. But his delegates lie in the wings, waiting to be wooed before the Republican Convention. Huckabee could snatch them, which would satisfy those like James Dobson, who openly declared his opposition against McCain on Super Tuesday. Huckabee, who Dobson endorsed, comes across as a paragon of conservatism, unflinchingly devout, with an appealing brand that has done well with evangelicals. Newsweek‘s recent poll showed McCain leading Huckabee among conservatives by a small margin (49 to 43 percentage points). Yet Huckabee, with the help of such groups as Kansans for Life won 104 out of 105 counties in the Kansas caucus, plus Louisiana.

But Huckabee is not, as Limbaugh and Hannity argue, a suitable conservative either. He does not market himself as an imitative cowboy in the guise of either Bush President, but a squirrel-eating, salt of the earth "hick". His reluctance to employ the death penalty, and his class origins, mark him out as unreliable. Notwithstanding these obstacles he promises to remain a significant threat – some conservative groups aligned against McCain, along with the large number of typing voices in the blogosphere, see Huckabee as the only hope. Prominent Republicans who don’t are simply, as Tim Einenkel of Air America Radio put it, keen on taking "southern hick votes" but not the candidacy of "an actual red-dirt, poor, working class guy". The GOP is dividing along class lines.

The position of McCain’s noisy opponents on the right is this: far better ensure defeat for the conservatives than elect a leader who will unalterably change them. The change they all fear is historical inevitability: the dissolution of the Reagan coalition, that powerful group that included libertarians, traditionalists and evangelicals. That change will involve moving to the political centre, embracing fiscal restraint and closing Guantánamo’s detention facilities. But they can’t endorse the alternative: a working class Baptist preacher who will fan class populism and religious fervor, the voice of low-income America that rages against the IRS.

Limbaugh and company are just not interested in the business of governing, preferring a resume of ideological horn blowing. A party that continues to believe in tax cuts in times of war even as the world’s largest economy heads into a recession must have overdosed on too many Fox News specials. That much Frum admits. But neither McCain or Huckabee will kill the GOP. That, in a sense, has already happened. And the executor, as Peggy Noonan put it in the Wall Street Journal was the younger Bush, the man who sundered "a great political coalition" by detaching the White House from its core supporters.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.