John McCain

The Enemies of their Enemy

The end of the Republican split

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A couple of weeks ago, John McCain was straining to ingratiate himself with the activists gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference. It was an uphill climb: By that point, some movement icons had publicly renounced the presumptive Republican nominee, and attendees were urged not to boo him. Some did anyway, and McCain was left to ponder the possibility of being abandoned by much of his party's base.

He shouldn't have worried. All it took to rally conservatives behind him was the intervention of The New York Times. Thursday, it published a flimsy, anonymously sourced story suggesting that nine years ago, he may have canoodled with a cute female lobbyist whose clients had business before his committee. How bad was the article? Years from now, if you type into Google, "Why do people hate the news media?" this story will pop up.

Those who had been angered by McCain's gentle treatment by liberal journalists were angered to see him handled roughly by the same scribes. They quit attacking McCain and began blasting The New York Times, which had given them plenty of ammunition. Note to the Times: When Sean Hannity sounds like the voice of responsible journalism, you've done something wrong.

And with that, the great Republican civil war was pretty much over. Conservatives will never embrace McCain for his views on immigration, campaign finance or global warming. But they may come to echo what was said about Grover Cleveland when he was nominated for president in 1884: "We love him most for the enemies he has made."

The closing of the rift should come as no surprise. After eight years in which they were about the only people to stick with the Republican president, conservatives have gotten used to thinking of the GOP as a wholly owned subsidiary of the right. In reality, though, they have never gained full control of the party, and as the pending McCain nomination suggests, they probably never will.

The party has long consisted of two groups, who might be called Eisenhower Republicans and Goldwater Republicans. In their narrative, conservatives relate a straight line of succession from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. In fact, the party took some major detours on the way.

After Goldwater in 1964, it veered toward the center, settling on Richard Nixon and then Gerald Ford. When Reagan neared the end of his presidency, GOP voters could have elevated any of several conservative candidates, including Jack Kemp, Paul Laxalt and Pat Robertson. Instead, they chose George H.W. Bush, long considered the embodiment of bland, moderate, East Coast Republicanism.

In 1996, the party faithful passed up Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Phil Gramm and Dan Quayle in favor of Bob Dole, whom Reaganites once branded the "tax collector for the welfare state." Even in 2000, George W. Bush raised some suspicions on the right, due to his centrist pedigree and his habit of calling himself a "compassionate conservative," lest anyone mistake him for that other kind.

In the end, Bush won over conservatives, partly thanks to opposition from their nemesis, John McCain. But polls then showed that most Republicans, far from embracing Bush's support of tax cuts, preferred to concentrate on reducing the national debt. Theirs was, and is, a conservative party, but not that conservative. Hence, McCain.

The experience of the last 40 years shows two things. One is that conservatives can never be sure of getting their kind of presidential nominee. The other is that, as far as the fortunes of the party are concerned, it doesn't matter. Once the nomination is assured, the Republican candidate will always embrace conservative themes, and conservatives will close ranks behind him.

How come? Because somewhere between February and November, many things happen to remind them how powerfully they detest the common enemy. Not just the Democratic nominee, but all the Democratic Party elders, interest groups, celebrities and leftish ideologues.

McCain may seem unappealing when he's debating policy with Mike Huckabee or even Mitt Romney. But let him start taking fire from Al Gore, Gloria Steinem, antiwar groups, environmental activists and teachers' unions—not to mention The New York Times—and suddenly he will look lovelier than the Taj Mahal at sunset.

As a rule, mobilizing people in politics is not about giving them someone to love. It's about giving them someone to hate.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. The entire article reads like “rah rah gonna beat down those darn liberals now! We hate that liberal media!” Does Steve Chapman write for one of the faux-libertarian Pajamas Media blogs?

    This quote was good though

    […] as far as the fortunes of the party are concerned, it doesn’t matter. Once the nomination is assured, the Republican candidate will always embrace conservative themes, and conservatives will close ranks behind him.

    Ain’t that the truth. Once the primaries are over, pay lipservice to actual values in order to appeal to the base and then… do fuckall while in office. But hey, at least Team Red wins against the Evil Team Blue!

  2. Chapman is a Chicago Tribune opinion page columnist. Libertarian tendencies but not staunch.

  3. So based on Bingo’s comments, is he a fan of the NYT? Pretty sad.

  4. The entire article reads like “rah rah gonna beat down those darn liberals now! We hate that liberal media!” Does Steve Chapman write for one of the faux-libertarian Pajamas Media blogs?

    In the article I read Chapman basically said, “Look what happened.” I didn’t picture him grinning about it.

    Once the primaries are over, pay lipservice to actual values in order to appeal to the base and then… do fuckall while in office.

    Which is pretty much what happens on both sides. As soon as Hillary/Barack is anointed liberals will close ranks to assure “Team Blue wins against the Evil Team Red!”

    Well, except for libertarians and greens.

  5. I got the impression it’s all just a little bit of History repeating was the theme. So don’t feel so cheated???

  6. The conservative movement as we know it was born as conceived as an opposition movement. Businessd conservatives, anti-leftist/anti-liberals, and small government conservatives came together to oppose the enormous New Deal Democratic majority that defined our politics from the 30s through the 60s. Once the Democrats embraced civil rights, a group of…let’s call them “traditionalists” jumped to that opposition, and the movement became a majority for a decade or two. But they never ceased being mainly an opposition movement, dedicated much more to undoing than to accomplishing.

    Then, NineElevenChangedEverything, and a conservative movement with an actual, affirmative vision took over the party: the neoconservatives. Well, we all know what happened there.

    So now the conservative movement is back where it was for most of its history – in the opposition, motivated mainly by opposition to liberalism. This makes it a lot easier for the Right to embrace someone like McCain. The daylight between them matters much less when they’re playing defense.

  7. John McCain : Movement Conseratives :: Hillary Clinton : Liberals

    Neither gets any love from those groups unless they’re seen to be unfairly attacked.

  8. Funny how these things work out.

  9. Hate is something the republicans can rally behind.

  10. I pretty much agree with joe on this one, although McCain might be a little closer to Rockefeller than Reagan.

  11. joe, you shouldn’t keep your eyes closed when you type, it makes you look really smug.

  12. joe,

    I think you ignore the extent that positive programs have shaped the behavior of two very important strands of the conservative movement: religious conservatives and Cold Warriors. Not that your analysis is entirely wrong; it’s just much more complicated than you let on.

  13. Hate is something the republicans can rally behind.

    More generally, hate is something that everyone who hates the same thing can rally behind. John Kerry’s 2004 nomination was based solely on hatred of Bush/Cheney because he was seen as the only electable Democratic candidate. It was the “Screw Howard Dean, we hate Bush” mentality.

    Isn’t it just possible that the Republicans are simply standing up against the liberal bias of the NYT, and not “rallying behind McCain”. It’s not like they’ve done a total 180 on McCain. Come November, his candidacy is still not going to motivate hardcore conservatives to “get out the vote”, although “defeating the socialist” (Obama) may.

  14. Charles

    Any three paragraph attempt to analyse a movement is likely to onversimplify and/or overgeneralize. Try to get to the nub of the New Deal in three paragraphs some time.

    joe’s comment may not get to the complexities of American conservatism but I think it does as well as can be done in that few words.

  15. Charles,

    It was a three ‘graph comment, so obviously I’m working in broad strokes.

    Still, I’d say that the Cold Warriors especially had a negative (in the sense of “not affirmative,” not meaning “bad”) orientation – they were opposed to the Communists. It’s not like they were working to change contested area like, say, Central America into something different than they were before the peasants started waving red flags.

    As for the theocons, I’d say they, too, mainly existed to maintain and restore traditional practices.

  16. joe,

    I know, I know, but I’m starting writing a dissertation sort of on this (from the other side, the failures of southern liberalism), so it’s on my mind.

    As for the Cold Warriors, in terms of domestic policy, they had a positive agenda — stop dilly-dallying (as they saw most Democratic approaches, including Vietnam) and start confronting the Soviets at every step. They didn’t want to simply stop current policies or revert back to old ones; they wanted to take it in a new direction.

    As for religious conservatives, much of their goals are oppositional, especially their short term ideas, were oppositional. But they had a longer view that and more active policies, for example, made libertarians uncomfortable very early on in the budding conservative movement of the 1960s.

    Anyway, to your larger point, I don’t think you can meaningfully consider conservatives the “oppositional” party since at least the 1970s. Let’s take social security. In some sense, it is oppositional to want to privatize or limit it, but that’s not the best word to describe people who want to reform a system that is old enough to be getting benefits itself.

  17. the article stated,

    “The party has long consisted of two groups, who might be called Eisenhower Republicans and Goldwater Republicans.”

    not really.

    the party was taken from the Goldwater republicans and given to The Fundamentalists (aka “the religious wrong”), who decided to impose Jeebus on all of us real republicans. The Fundamentalists are those rascally “into your bedroom!” pseudo-republicans who have nothing to do with Goldwater republicans. Goldwater, you may recall, stated, “I don’t care if a soldier is straight, as long as they can shoot straight”. a far cry from the alleged republican party we have today.

    so the article should read,

    “The party has long consisted of two groups, who might be called Goldwater Republicans and Pat Robertson Republicans”.

  18. Of course, of course.

    How could any actual libertarian not vote for the party of permanent war, “terrorism” hoopla, deficit spending, domestic spying, faith-based initiatives, No Child Left Behind, etc., etc. ?

  19. I don’t think he said anything about libertarians voting for McCain.

    Nope, not one word.

  20. Charles,

    OK, I can get behind the idea that the Rollback people had an affirmative agenda domestically. They weren’t just opposing the Truman doctrine, they had their own doctrine that went beyond “we’re opposed to containment.”

    On the theocons, I agree they, left to their own devices, they would have introduced all sorts of novel, affirmative agendas to America – but the aspects of that agenda that actually worked their into the Republican platform were mainly the oppositional ones, mainly their opposition to “activist liberal judges” striking down existing laws.

    And I’m standing pat on “opposition.” While Reagan and Dole had lots of ideas, they were almost all about tearing down the New Deal. Their politics still revolved around opposition to things like Social Security, welfare, and the regulatory state.

  21. I still enjoy reading Chapman’s libertarian masterpiece about putting $1000 breathalyzer ignition locks in the cars of anyone who gets convicted of a DUI. The pure brilliancy of showing us how it will save lives and therefore it must be a good idea for the government to do it. This fail safe…lock box of hard core logic should be taught to all schoolchildren. Every libertarian should be forced at gunpoint to read that article.

  22. Chapman’s generally a pretty astute observer of the political scene, but in this instance I think he may be overestimating the likelihood of hard right conservatives ultimately supporting John McCain.

    First, they consider him untrustworthy, to say the least. One character trait the far right conservative element of the party can’t abide is outright dishonesty.

    Second, many of them figure McCain is just the man to enact a liberal Democratic agenda anyway, especially without the strenuous opposition in the Congress of his own party members. He could, in their view, be more effective in getting through Barack Obama’s agenda than Obama himself. The long term problem is that in having done so, the Republicans will get blamed for the resultant economic, social, and cultural diaster.

    I wouldn’t lay any heavy bets on the conservative base steadfastly supporting McCain, however much they loathe the NYT and their treatment of him.

  23. “””John Kerry’s 2004 nomination was based solely on hatred of Bush/Cheney because he was seen as the only electable Democratic candidate.”””

    It can’t be sole hatred if you mention two reasons. Hatred and electability. It’s one thing to hate a current president’s policies and want a new one, it’s something else to hate a person. Partisan people can’t seem to seperate the two. Not that I’m calling you partisan. After all doesn’t it make since that the democrats would vote for the democrat candidate? They didn’t vote for Kerry because they hated Bush, they voted the party line, which is to be expected. Of course they didn’t like Bush, he belonged to the opposition party!

    You are right that the NY Times has a credibility problem, like when Judith Miller wrote articles backing the Bush admin’s claims of WMD. Which she spent time in jail to protect her source, Scooter Libby. Which reporter from a right-wing media outlet spent jail time to protect a liberal? Or that the Times recently hired Bill Kristol?

    It’s funny how a right winger will agree with the Times when the story favors their beliefs.

  24. Of course, the Republican Party could have nominated someone who is with them on immigration, campaign finance, and global warming, as well as tax cuts, gun rights, strict Constructionist judges, and just about every other conservative issue: Ron Paul.

    But the war is too important to them, even though it’s an electoral loser. Makes you wonder how smart Republicans really are.

  25. “”Second, many of them figure McCain is just the man to enact a liberal Democratic agenda anyway, especially without the strenuous opposition in the Congress of his own party members.”””

    If McCain wins the nomination, the republicans will support him, albeit while holding their nose. Repubs, and dems alike are hate their own during primary season. Once the nominations happen, many, I’ll say most, go back to voting the party line.

    For the RNC, it’s better to have a bad republican than any democrat in office.

    Currently my vote will probably go to McCain. Mostly because I think the dems will pick up seats in Congress and I don’t like one party holding both the Executive and Legislative branches. I can barely tolerate McCain which is slightly better for me than Rudy or the Huckananny. Can’t stand Hillary, and I doubt Obama will convince me to vote for him.

  26. Craig, I do find it amusing that the republicans want little to do with the man that would walk their talk.

  27. Try to get to the nub of the New Deal in three paragraphs some time.

    How about three sentences:

    1. The government will take care of you from cradle to grave.

    2. Your taxes might go up a bit.

    3. Did we mention the whole scheme is inherently unsustainable, if people start living longer and having fewer kids?

  28. Abortion is the issue that drives much of the hate – there is no getting around that fact. Every time I hear about “activist” judges I know it is a code word for abortion (right to privacy) and forced school prayer/evolution/stem cells/gays. The Christ-Nuts have settled in the GOP therefore I could never support a Republican – no matter the stripe. Most of the country is “liberal” on these social issues but their position is obscured by the two-party system.

  29. It seems obvious that the NYT wants a close presidential race to drive their readership- they offered the perfect article to help John McCain – and at just the right time. This helps unite the right and ensures an election season with enough interest to sell papers.

    its always the money.

  30. As to the Republican permanent war.

    Did you know that the USA has a department dedicated to that proposition? It used to be called the War Dept.

    The War Dept has been with us since the Geo. Washington Presidency. You can look it up.

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