A couple of weeks ago, John McCain was straining to ingratiate himself with the activists gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference. It was an uphill climb: By that point, some movement icons had publicly renounced the presumptive Republican nominee, and attendees were urged not to boo him. Some did anyway, and McCain was left to ponder the possibility of being abandoned by much of his party’s base.
He shouldn’t have worried. All it took to rally conservatives behind him was the intervention of The New York Times. Thursday, it published a flimsy, anonymously sourced story suggesting that nine years ago, he may have canoodled with a cute female lobbyist whose clients had business before his committee. How bad was the article? Years from now, if you type into Google, “Why do people hate the news media?” this story will pop up.
Those who had been angered by McCain’s gentle treatment by liberal journalists were angered to see him handled roughly by the same scribes. They quit attacking McCain and began blasting The New York Times, which had given them plenty of ammunition. Note to the Times: When Sean Hannity sounds like the voice of responsible journalism, you’ve done something wrong.
And with that, the great Republican civil war was pretty much over. Conservatives will never embrace McCain for his views on immigration, campaign finance or global warming.
But they may come to echo what was said about Grover Cleveland when he was nominated for president in 1884: “We love him most for the enemies he has made.”
The closing of the rift should come as no surprise. After eight years in which they were about the only people to stick with the Republican president, conservatives have gotten used to thinking of the GOP as a wholly owned subsidiary of the right. In reality, though, they have never gained full control of the party, and as the pending McCain nomination suggests, they probably never will.
The party has long consisted of two groups, who might be called Eisenhower Republicans and Goldwater Republicans. In their narrative, conservatives relate a straight line of succession from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. In fact, the party took some major detours on the way.
After Goldwater in 1964, it veered toward the center, settling on Richard Nixon and then Gerald Ford. When Reagan neared the end of his presidency, GOP voters could have elevated any of several conservative candidates, including Jack Kemp, Paul Laxalt and Pat Robertson. Instead, they chose George H.W. Bush, long considered the embodiment of bland, moderate, East Coast Republicanism.
In 1996, the party faithful passed up Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Phil Gramm and Dan Quayle in favor of Bob Dole, whom Reaganites once branded the “tax collector for the welfare state.” Even in 2000, George W. Bush raised some suspicions on the right, due to his centrist pedigree and his habit of calling himself a “compassionate conservative,” lest anyone mistake him for that other kind.
In the end, Bush won over conservatives, partly thanks to opposition from their nemesis, John McCain. But polls then showed that most Republicans, far from embracing Bush’s support of tax cuts, preferred to concentrate on reducing the national debt. Theirs was, and is, a conservative party, but not that conservative. Hence, McCain.
The experience of the last 40 years shows two things. One is that conservatives can never be sure of getting their kind of presidential nominee. The other is that, as far as the fortunes of the party are concerned, it doesn’t matter. Once the nomination is assured, the Republican candidate will always embrace conservative themes, and conservatives will close ranks behind him.
How come? Because somewhere between February and November, many things happen to remind them how powerfully they detest the common enemy. Not just the Democratic nominee, but all the Democratic Party elders, interest groups, celebrities and leftish ideologues.
McCain may seem unappealing when he’s debating policy with Mike Huckabee or even Mitt Romney. But let him start taking fire from Al Gore, Gloria Steinem, antiwar groups, environmental activists and teachers’ unions — not to mention The New York Times — and suddenly he will look lovelier than the Taj Mahal at sunset.
As a rule, mobilizing people in politics is not about giving them someone to love. It’s about giving them someone to hate.