One of the more interesting subplots in the Republican presidential contest is the attitude of conservative elites towards long-time intraparty nemesis John McCain. Most don’t like him, for a variety of reasons ranging from his sponsorship of campaign finance reform, to his wavering record on tax cuts, his past feuding with the Christian Right, and his habit of cosponsoring legislation with Democrats (most importantly, on immigration reform and global climate change). Sure, he’s flip-flopped at least partially on some of these issues, and has won some conservative brownie points with his championship of Iraq escalation and his frank support for a permanent U.S. military engagement in that country. But many conservatives opinion-leaders still don’t trust him at all, and their views appear to be shared by a significant number of conservative voters in the early primaries.
But results are results, and between McCain’s wins in NH and SC, and his uniquely strong showing in general election polls, conservatives are having to come to grips with a McCain nomination, particularly if he wins in FL.
In general, conservative elites are talking about McCain much as many of their Democratic counterparts talked about Howard Dean during the brief period in the last presidential cycle when his nomination looked “inevitable.” And just as some of those Democrats longed for reassurance from Dean that all his revolutionary rhetoric hid a conventional politician, conservatives are openly asking McCain for a pander or two to make them feel better about succumbing to his nomination.
Here’s an interesting opening bid by the L’Osservatore Romano of conservative opinion, National Review:
McCain will never win over all conservatives, even if he gets the nomination. But he can reassure conservatives if he pledges to name a conservative running mate and identifies respected conservative legal figures to whom he will turn when nominating judges. He can promise to approach immigration reform piecemeal rather than comprehensively. He should say that strong evidence that the illegal-immigrant population is shrinking will have to arrive before he legalizes any large segment of that population. And he can acknowledge that scientific advances have weakened the case for federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research.
Note the pointed reference to the veep choice, which should pour some cold water on neocon fantasies of a McCain-Lieberman ticket (no career-long supporters of abortion rights need apply), along with the demand for a flip-flop on stem cell research, and a full surrender on immigration reform.
At present, it’s unclear exactly how much leverage conservative elites have with McCain. He’s done pretty well without their support, and the real-world obstacle to McCain’s nomination is Mitt Romney’s bottomless campaign treasury, not conservative hostility. But expect to see more of this bidding for McCain’s allegiance if his electoral success continues.