Cheers and Jeers for McCain at CPAC

Speaking to a crowd of about 5,000 conservative activists, Sen. John McCain tried to calm conservatives to win over skeptics who had only a few hours before heard his principal rival, Mitt Romney, drop out of the race.

Romney’s exit was graceful, and surprising only for its timing. Conservative talk radio star Laura Ingraham, introducing Romney, said she was proud to be the only person privileged to be introducing a conservative candidate. But Romney’s speech – as good as any he gave in the campaign — tipped his hand early, hinting, “If I fight all the way to the convention…” A few moments later the Romney campaign was over.

And suddenly there were a profusion of McCain signs, stickers and baseball caps popping up among the crowd. McCain had received a call from Romney tipping off the governor’s decision to end his campaign, and McCain’s supporters were ready.

By the time he arrived about two hours later, John McCain was the presumptive Republican nominee. The Reagan video introduction I reported on Wednesday was nowhere to be seen. One source told me the CPAC organizers had strongly recommended to McCain’s campaign that they not use it. Instead, two solid conservatives — former Virginia Sen. George Allen and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok) — introduced McCain. Coburn, best known for his constant battle against earmarks and other wasteful spending, kidded that McCain, “…knows I’d kill him” if he had a secret plan for amnesty for illegal aliens.

McCain fairly bounded into the room, smiled, cracked a few self-deprecating jokes and launched into a speech that was sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes confident, and — resolutely and repeatedly — insisting on his conservative credentials. McCain needed to do more than recite conservative boilierplate messages, and he did on some issues.

McCain knows that his biggest battle is to unify his supporters with the conservative base. Acknowledging that, he said, “I am acutely aware that I cannot succeed in that endeavor, nor can our party prevail over the challenge we will face from either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, without the support of dedicated conservatives, whose convictions, creativity and energy have been indispensible to the success our party has had over the last quarter century.” To gain that support, McCain promised several things.

When he raised the subject of illegal immigration, he was stopped for a moment by the loud boos of the audience. But McCain said more than he had said before:

“On the issue of illegal immigration, a position which provoked the outspoken opposition of many conservatives, I stood my ground aware that my position would imperil my campaign. I respect your opposition for I know that the vast majority of critics to the bill based their opposition in a principled defense of the rule of law. And while I and other Republican supporters of the bill were genuine in our intention to restore control of our borders, we failed, for various and understandable reasons, to convince Americans that we were. I accept that, and have pledged that it would be among my highest priorities to secure our borders first, and only after we achieved widespread consensus that our borders are secure, would we address other aspects of the problem in a way that defends the rule of law and does not encourage another wave of illegal immigration.”

Before CPAC, McCain had bobbed and weaved in answer to the question of whether he’d sign a bill like the McCain-Kennedy-Bush amnesty bill. On Meet the Press, he first said he would and then denied such a bill would ever pass. At the CNN debate before the Florida primary, he was very evasive. Now, he has said that there will be no other aspects of immigration “reform” until there is a consensus that the borders are secure.

This is a major move by McCain to answer his conservative critics. Those doubts aren’t erased entirely because of something he said later in his speech.

Toward the end of his speech, after promising to prevent Iran from possessing, “…the weapons to advance their malevolent ambitions,” McCain promised to remain the maverick he has always been. He said:

“We have had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won’t continue to have a few. But even in disagreement, especially in disagreement, I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives. If I am convinced my judgment is in error, I will correct it. And if I stand by my position, even after benefit of your counsel, I hope you will not lose sight of the far more numerous occasions when we are in complete accord.”

This is vintage McCain. He promises to hear, not to listen. He promises to seek counsel, but not to respect it.

To be fair to McCain, there are times, in war, when a president has to make decisions based on facts the public does not and cannot know. But those decisions aren’t the ones Mr. McCain has made on many domestic issues conservatives care most about.

He pledged to protect the lives of the unborn, to protect the right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment, but he did not — as Gov. Romney did earlier that day — support a constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriage. And what he promises is that he will give conservatives a fair hearing.

That is less than we require of our leaders. We require them to adhere to our basic principles, and that those principles be the basis for their decisions.

At CPAC, Sen. McCain took a few important steps to reach out to conservatives and unify the party. When he adheres to those principles, we must support him. When he does not, we must oppose him.

Conservatives want to be reunited with the Republican Party. At CPAC, McCain took the first steps to achieving that. But much more remains to be done. The questions are, will he and can he?