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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Right’s Second Look At McCain

With his non-announcement announcement of candidacy on Letterman Wednesday night, John McCain’s getting some fresh media attention today, most notably Peggy Noonan’s typically frothy take in the (subscription-only) Wall Street Journal. But a far more significant example of the Right’s reevaluation of the McCain candidacy will soon appear in a National Review cover story penned by Ramesh Ponnuru (I got it via email, so I can’t link to this one, either).His bottom line is that McCain’s doing a lot better in his nomination candidacy than the polls indicate, because the big news is that Mitt Romney has failed to become the “true conservative” candidate, leaving McCain to duke it out with Giuliani, whose standing is bound to take a dive when conservatives really focus on his views:

McCain’s apostasies from conservatism, unlike Giuliani’s, are well known. The mayor’s polls form a ceiling. McCain’s could be a floor, if conservatives are willing to reconsider their view of him. If they do, then the current Giuliani moment will be succeeded by a McCain moment. I think conservatives will give him a second look–as they should.

After briskly noting Rudy’s “apostasies” on abortion, immigration and guns (you could add gay rights to the list), and summarily rejecting Romney as unelectable because of his Mormonism, Ponnuru then engages in a systematic “second look” at McCain, issue by issue.Did he oppose Bush’s tax cuts? Yeah, but now that they are in place, he’s willing to take the pledge against any tax increases. Has he engaged in a little corporate-exec bashing? Sure, but that’s yesterday’s issue. Campaign finance reform? Yes, McCain was definitely a villain on an issue that resonates as intensely with conservative activists as net neutrality does with progressive bloggers, but hey, he’s said he won’t promote any new reforms. Global warming? Well, at least he’s now hyping nuclear power, and perhaps (in an interesting admission by Ponnuru) McCain “was more prescient than most conservatives” on this issue. The McCain-Kennedy immigration bill? Bad politically, no doubt, but McCain seems “open to the concept” of concessions to the fence-builders and deporters. Gay marriage? Don’t forget McCain has said he’d support a constitutional amendment if federal courts tried to impose gay marriage on the states.In the end, it’s clear Ponnuru thinks McCain’s “rock-solid” record opposing legalized abortion–marred by “one foolish remark” in 1999 about the political inadvisability of overturning Roe v. Wade, could be the real clincher for conservatives, along with the Arizonan’s support for the Iraq War and his strident advocacy of an escalation of the war up to and beyond what Bush is attempting. But even though Ponnuru rather defensively rejects the idea that GOPers are suffering from a weak presidential field, the tone and structure of his case for McCain strongly suggests a defense attorney negotiating a plea bargain.I’m not one to place as much stock in “energy” and “activism” and other psychological factors in politics as many in the progressive blogosphere, since in the end, it’s all about votes. Nobody gets more than one vote, and unless the “energy” is communicable, its power is limited to what it produces in the way of money and shoe-leather. These are important assets, but not the ball game. Still, it’s not a good sign for Republicans that their “movement conservative” activist wing is so clearly unenthused about its most viable presidential candidates, including Giuliani, Romney and McCain.At the very end of his piece, Ponnuru offers one particularly interesting hint at why conservatives may wind up deciding on McCain as the best of an unexciting batch:

Conservatives may need to reach some understandings with McCain before throwing their support to him: on the vice presidential nominee, on immigration, maybe even on the number of terms McCain will serve as president. (He is 70).

Maybe that’s McCain’s secret weapon with the activist Right: he’d probably be done after one term of keeping the White House in Republican hands and keeping key conservative policies and appointees in place, yielding the helm in 2012 to a “real conservative.” Perhaps that would be Vice President Brownback or Vice President Huckabee, or even a guy named Jeb Bush.

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