April 11, 2008


All Aboard the McCain Express (RICK PERLSTEIN, April 21, 2008, The Nation)

George Stephanopoulos once asked Tom DeLay what it was conservatives demanded of McCain, and DeLay admitted as much: "I don't think they're demanding that he change in his position," he said. "It is attitude."

In other words: it's the ring-kissing, stupid. Consider George H.W. Bush's attitude: he all but groveled before conservatives--first calling supply-side doctrine "voodoo economics," then swallowing hard and accepting a spot as voodoo priest Reagan's running mate. Bob Dole, formerly a proud budget balancer, lay prostrate before them in accepting a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut as the cornerstone of his 1996 presidential platform, then took on movement hero Jack Kemp as his running mate.

For conservative leaders, making candidates pay them court, publicly and ostentatiously, is a colossal source of their symbolic power before their followers. It's kabuki theater, mostly. Ronald Reagan never did much to make abortion illegal. He did, however, deliver videotaped greetings, fulsome in praise for his hosts, to antiabortion rallies on the Mall. Pentecostal leaders were horrified to see George W. Bush violate what they considered biblical prophesy by giving over the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians in 2004. After they made their dismay known, Bush did not change his mind. He did, however, send top White House and National Security Council staffers to flatter them in a private meeting that concluded, according to an account one of the pastors sent to his followers, "with a heart-moving send-off of the President in his Presidential helicopter." Rings kissed, egos assuaged--and these particular Pentecostals stopped complaining about the sacrilege. The issue wasn't the issue.

For decades, the operative theory in Republican politics has been that there exists a seething mass of lockstep conservative voters controlled by leaders like these, without whose support no Republican can win a presidential election. Michael Reagan puts it this way: "If [McCain] gets the nomination the only way he could win against Hillary or Barack Obama would be to be part of a McCain-Limbaugh ticket." But that's certainly never been reflected in any actual electoral data. Indeed, this year it appears that conservative opinion leaders are more out of touch with the masses they purport to lead than ever. According to a recent CBS poll, only 17 percent of Republicans want an uncompromising conservative as their nominee. Eighty percent of Republicans are satisfied with McCain. Sixty percent of conservative primary voters say they "want a candidate who would compromise with Democrats in order to get things done."

McCain has called their bluff. He didn't suck up to Rush Limbaugh but won the nomination anyway; he's also faring well in general election matchups. He has shown that the kingmakers have no clothes. The humiliation is hard to forgive. It has made it harder for conservative leaders to do business and turned politicians like McCain (and Arnold Schwarzenegger), in their eyes, into monsters. On Glenn Beck's CNN show, for instance, Democratic consultant Peter Fenn pointed out that the reason McCain does well with voters is that "they think he is independent."

"Yes," Beck replied, "well, so is Dr. Frankenstein."

Kind of gives the game away: in their mind, these conservative leaders create Republican Presidents. But what's the point if GOP candidates are just going to go crashing around the countryside doing whatever the hell they want?

And so the professional conservatives did their best to set loose the torch-bearing mob. Late in January, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum made call after call after call spreading the word that, yes, even a President Hillary Clinton or a President Barack Obama would be better than a President McCain. At one point, according to Democratic activist Mike Lux, who overheard an indiscreet Santorum making such calls on the New York-DC Metroliner, Santorum attempted to talk an interlocutor into "coming out with a terrible story about McCain from five or six years ago." Clearly the crusade to sabotage McCain didn't work. Professional conservative Monica Crowley finally admitted the obvious: "A lot of people have actually voted for McCain, and they weren't just moderates and independents. Enough Republicans have voted for him to give him the nomination--and yes, a decent number of conservatives have too."

...is that the party faithful gave Maverick the ring, so they have to kiss up to him, not vice versa.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 11, 2008 4:27 PM

Sh-h-h-h. The Maskirovska still must be maintained, for what it may yet be worth.

Those people on the other side are starting to catch on, but it is much too late for them to react. We have achieved military surprise with McCain: they know they've been had, but it's too late for them to do anything about it.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 11, 2008 5:21 PM

your "Beltway Right" also lives in Colorado Springs, among other such locales.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at April 11, 2008 5:51 PM

Yes, they live in a variety of places -- isn't Rush in Florida or somewhere? -- but their work revolves around the Beltway. They're just as disconnected from America as the Left.

Posted by: oj at April 11, 2008 6:12 PM

They're just as disconnected from America as the Left.

Words of wisdom from the guy with the Time-Zone Rule, State-line Rule, County Rule, Township Rule, and Backyard Rule.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 11, 2008 6:20 PM

Yes, Rick, and as this Coloradan can tell you, James Dobson does all he can to go back into the "we religious folk are not allowed into politics" shtick whenever any actual heat is placed on him. Most Colorado Springs-area politicans have manuevered around him quite nicely; they fear the military bloc more than Dr. Dobson.

Dr. Dobson has a big enough global media empire that he can avoid all association with the Beltway Right and still be something of an influence.

Posted by: Brad S at April 11, 2008 7:15 PM

He is the Beltway Right. His chief argument with McCain is lobbying and CFR restrictions.

Posted by: oj at April 11, 2008 9:07 PM

Normal Americans don't violate the state border rule.

Posted by: oj at April 11, 2008 9:08 PM

Dobson flirts with arrogance and snobbery. He is not unhinged, as Pat Robertson can be, but he doesn't seem to have the grounding (the common touch, the rough edge) that Jerry Falwell had.

What makes me cringe about the 'leaders' of the Christian right is their attitude of expectation or superiority within the party (or the coalition). They are upset because the GOP did not nominate another George Bush, but within the political tent, they are (we are) not the only voice, and not the only 'correct' answer. Guys like Dobson should know better - the right answer on theology will translate into the right answer on politics, but we cannot demand that every Republican voter (or every American voter) see each issue the same way. Nor can we put our trust in princes. The demand for ideological purity is beyond Christianity.

However, I have to laugh when I think about the pastoral problems that the Democrats have. Dobson, Robertson, even John Hagee are cherubs compared to Wright, Meeks, and Jimmy Carter.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 11, 2008 11:45 PM

Senator Rick Santorum ...spreading the word that, yes, even a President Hillary Clinton or a President Barack Obama would be better than a President McCain.

These conservatives are supposed to be staunch pro-lifers. McCain is the only prolife candidate, Hillary allows late-term abortions, and Obama wants to withhold care for surviving aborted victims.

Posted by: ic at April 12, 2008 3:30 AM

Santorum, who got trounced in 2006, supporting the cypher Romney and raging about the unelectability of McCain was just plain strange.

These guys need to stick to issues and leave the personalities out of it.

Posted by: Jorge Curioso at April 12, 2008 4:47 AM

Senator Rick Santorum ...spreading the word that, yes, even a President Hillary Clinton or a President Barack Obama would be better than a President McCain.

These conservatives are supposed to be staunch pro-lifers. McCain is the only prolife candidate, Hillary allows late-term abortions, and Obama wants to withhold care for surviving aborted victims.

It isn't principle that motivates them, it is power. And they have confused (and confused others) that noise equals numbers. Anyone that has dealt with small children knows that is not quite the case...

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 12, 2008 7:25 AM