One of those low-grade-fever, under-the-radar discussions that often consume the chattering classes involves the possibility that the Republican Party will offer up John McCain as the successor to George W. Bush in 2008. It’s an especially interesting topic to us political junkies who know (a) how much savage hatred was built up in 2000 between McCain and the movement conservative/K Street/theocon establishment backing Bush; (b) how often McCain has violated conservative litmus tests on domestic issues ranging from tax cuts to global climate change to ethics legislation; and (c) how tempting it is to McCain’s old GOP enemies to bring him back into the establishment to save it from total immolation in 2008.I’ve already weighed in on a TPMCafe discussion of McCain’s future, but was prompted to say more here by an interesting assessment of McCain’s rapproachment with conservatives written by Byron York of National Review, published by The New Republic.York is a very good old-school reporter who knows the conservative world intimately, so I’ll take his word for it that McCain’s efforts on Bush’s behalf in 2004; his base-pleasing outspokenness about the righteousness of the war in Iraq; and the recent conservative convergance with the Arizonan on the fiscal profligacy of the congressional GOP; are all factors that cover a multitude of McCain’s past and present heresies against Republican orthodoxy. But I submit those heresies–which include McCain’s sponsorship, with Joe Lieberman, of the climate change legislation conservatives hate passionately–remain a bar to a McCain run in 2008, unless he goes far out of his way in the future to tack back to the Right. The other factor, of course, is exactly how desperate Republicans are becoming when they think about 2008. Do they embrace their ancient intraparty enemy over their friends? Will they demand McCain bend the knee on a variety of conservative litmus tests? How many assurances will they require about the shape and the staffing of a potential McCain White House? (Will my colleague The Moose, for example, be banned from grazing among the canapes at White House receptions?).My own gut feeling about the current conservative flirtation with McCain is that it’s all a matter of hedging bets. The Right will look high and low for a presidential alternative to McCain, but the big priority is to make sure they get a sufficiently clear set of commitments from him to make the competition as insignificant as possible.For us very interested outsiders in this Republican debate, the major question is how big a piece of his own persona McCain has to repudiate to attract GOP forces who’d rather try to tame and train him, than to actually listen to his words. And for McCain, the question is how far he’s willing to go to make his own proud and independent words meaningless.
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By Ed Kilgore
While mulling some recent material from The Bulwark, I thought I’d explain something to the converted “Never Trumpers” the outlet represents, and did so at New York:
For a while now I’ve had a guilty-pleasure reading habit: The Bulwark, that semi-official outlet of Never Trumpers who view themselves as having definitively broken with the GOP thanks to their former party’s thralldom to Donald J. Trump. I share its contributors’ belief that they (the tribe usefully described by Miller as Red Dog Democrats) represent not just a self-promoting claque of elite scribblers but a real if marginal faction of the Democratic Party, having burned a lot of bridges on their way out of the GOP. Their views appear to parallel those of a significant number of suburban Republicans and independents who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020. And given the very close balance between voters of the two parties, as reflected most recently in 2020, Democrats really can’t afford to contemptuously reject any potential adherents, however alien or even repugnant they might find their backgrounds.
So it’s understandable when Bulwark co-founder Charlie Sykes expresses frustration that Democrats refuse to consider their pleas for policy concessions on grounds of holding old grudges:
“The spending. The wokeness. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment. I could go on …
“These are difficult times for folks on the center-right, who’ve tried to join Democrats in a loose alliance to protect the Republic from Trumpism …
“Litmus tests are applied: it’s not enough to be pro-democracy, NTers are also expected to embrace the elements of the progressive agenda — from free community college, to abortion, rent moratoriums, police funding, transgenderism, CRT, social spending, and the candidacy of Greta Thunberg for sainthood.”
Sykes fears it’s all very personal, and warns, “If you cancel moderates/conservatives for their past sins, you don’t have a coalition.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not really about the Red Dogs. Yes, I’m sure it’s been tough for them to watch Democrats largely come together around a legislative program that’s significantly more progressive than the one advanced by the Obama administration. But Democrats have been coalescing around the basics of the Build Back Better agenda for some time now. That the famously moderate Joe Biden now embraces it is a sign of how the party has slowly evolved, not some sort of betrayal or surrender to the left. And anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential primaries should have understood that there is less distance between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders than between Joe Biden and the Joe Biden of the 1990s.
Part of what has happened is simply a resolution of internal conflicts among Democrats that left them defensive and at times incoherent. A classic example is one that Sykes mentioned: abortion policy. For years, Democrats claimed to value reproductive rights even as they accepted significant limitations on them: e.g., the Hyde Amendment, which made abortion services, unlike any other medical services, ineligible for any sort of federal support. That amendment, along with acceptance of some largely symbolic restrictions on rare late-term abortions, and the whole “safe, legal, and rare” messaging introduced by Bill Clinton, represented concessions to a significant bloc of Democratic voters and Democratic pols who did not recognize reproductive rights at all.
That has changed over time. Anti-abortion Democratic politicians are a rare and shrinking breed, and there are now significantly fewer anti-abortion Democratic voters than there are pro-choice Republicans. Most Democrats, including Joe Biden, have made the leap into a more coherent and unified position. They aren’t going to turn back the clock to satisfy ex-Republicans, but they aren’t insisting on a “litmus test” just to annoy or exclude them, either. The same could be said for other policy tenets once beloved by a significant number of Democrats — from fiscal hawkishness to armed interventionism to an openness to “entitlement reform” — that remain attractive to the newest proto-Democrats. As for the idea that Democrats are some sort of rigid ideological cult: Come on, seriously? Look at what’s going on with the attempted enactment of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. If this is an intolerant and exclusive political party, I’d hate to see a loosey-goosey one try to function. It may just be that the issues Red Dogs fret about may lie outside the still relatively loose bounds of party unity.
This doesn’t mean Red Dogs should despair, but it may mean another painful reevaluation of priorities, recognizing that most have already had to sacrifice a lot of old allegiances and even the habitual language used to make sense of the political world. In many respects, the Never Trumpers resemble their spiritual (and in some cases biological) predecessors, the neo-conservatives. These were people who broke with the Democratic Party out of a conviction that Democratic views on national security made continued party loyalty impossible. But most of them retained many views that horrified their new Republican allies until they accepted the inevitable role of a factional minority and grew to accommodate or even share the policy positions and ideological language of the GOP, which was increasingly dominated by conservatives with their own ideological-consistency demands.
Most Red Dogs have no illusions about the party they’ve left and understand their constituencies are too small to form a third force or demand concessions from a position of strength. Most, I suppose, will get used to the strange and sometimes lurid landscape of the Donkey Party. Others will embrace the posture of the gadfly, the people of no party or coalition. But it’s really not personal. It’s just politics.