Sen. McCain could be making a fatal strategic blunder in thinking he can cobble together a winning coalition in November via the unorthodox route (for a Republican) of courting moderates and jilting the conservative base, including Christian conservatives.
It’s possible that McCain will win in November, but if that happens, it will more likely be a result of Obama beating himself — assuming Obama’s campaign doesn’t disintegrate before he formally secures the nomination.
McCain must begin with the bad news that his historic appeal to centrist voters is in jeopardy in two major ways. The first concerns Obama’s natural fit with these voters. His mythical narrative that he can unify Americans and usher in an era of "hope" will be irresistible to many who are hungrier for kumbaya than any particular policy agenda.
Second, McCain’s favorable image among centrists could disappear as quickly as the mainstream media withdraws its opportunistic love for him — a process that has already begun. Their affinity for McCain was purely a function of his being a thorn in the side to President Bush, Republicans and conservative causes. But now that he is the GOP presidential candidate, he represents the evil Republican Party, which must be destroyed at all costs.
If this weren’t enough, he is running — how dare he? — against their chosen messiah, Barack Obama. If they turned on Hillary Clinton over it, McCain is way beyond crisp toast. This heretical challenge to the savior from a Republican will not be tolerated.
So no matter how you cut it, McCain begins with a crippling handicap in his quest to win over moderate voters — a handicap that can only be overcome by an Obama implosion.
Exacerbating McCain’s precarious position is that he has repeatedly betrayed the conservative base with McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, McCain-Lieberman, the Gang of 14 and demonizing achievers, for starters. He also has a habit of deprecating Christian conservatives, such as when in 2000, following the South Carolina primary, he denounced Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other evangelicals as "agents of intolerance."
After making some overtures to the Christian right this time around, McCain has reverted to form by choosing to make conspicuous public breaks with pastors John Hagee and Rod Parsley and — hot off the presses — now reportedly declining an invitation to meet with the legendary, beloved Billy Graham.
Indeed, snubbing Billy Graham is in such poor taste and so politically inept that I wonder whether McCain won’t have reversed himself before this column goes to print. But as it stands now, he appears to have declined to meet with him as part of a strategic decision not to identify as strongly with the evangelical right as GOP presidential candidates have done since Ronald Reagan.
McCain may think he can take "values voters" for granted because he is a Republican, but their support isn’t mindless or free. Many already feel his lack of love toward them, which could feed into the Democrats’ cynical semantic ploy to win over Christian voters by restating their message in moral language at the suggestion of linguist George Lakoff. Cloaking their positions on poverty, global warming and AIDS in the garb of Christian language could yield abundant electoral fruit for Democrats.
Don’t forget that McCain finished last among the nine candidates in the "Values Voters" summit straw poll last year or that the revered James Dobson announced in February that he couldn’t support McCain. Also don’t forget that the press repeatedly reminds us that Obama is a committed Christian who is "very comfortable talking about his faith."
Granted, Obama’s stunning statement (for a self-proclaimed Christian) disputing the uniqueness of Christianity — "I believe there are many paths to the same place" — and his association with a church promoting black liberation theology ought to be disqualifying with Christian conservatives. But Obama can overcome these disadvantages with press coverage, his superficial appeal to Christian peace, harmony, unity and bipartisanship, and McCain’s gift of offending this constituency.
Before McCain steers his ship totally off course — toward the center and away from the right — he better take seriously predictions of Christian conservative insiders that Obama could win more than 40 percent of the evangelical vote.
He must also understand that analyzing the impact of Christian conservatives on GOP politics isn’t merely a numbers game. Christian conservatives are the foot soldiers at the grass roots, who deliver victories to the GOP because of their intensity and corresponding commitment to the cause — a cause McCain has yet to convince them he believes in.
As Family Research Council President Tony Perkins ominously noted, "For John McCain to be competitive, he has to connect with the base to the point that they’re intense enough that they’re contagious. Right now, they’re not even coughing."