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Why McCain Endures

Author: Michael J. Gerson, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow
February 8, 2008
Washington Post

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The attacks of movement conservatives—particularly the talk radio and blogging crowd—on John McCain have reached a shrill, off-key crescendo. McCain is not only “dangerous” and “stupid,” he has “contempt for his fellow humans.” His opponents will refuse to vote in the general election, or even will campaign for Hillary Clinton. With McCain now almost the last man standing, it will be interesting to see how, or if, these pledges are fulfilled.

McCain is partly responsible for this state of affairs. Over the years, he has enjoyed poking angry bears with short sticks—flirting with conversion to the Democratic Party and lashing out at Christian conservatives as “agents of intolerance.”

Yet for some conservatives, the frustrations run deeper than resentment for a single, outsized, prickly, infuriating man. Early in this cycle, many elements of the Republican coalition rooted for—and fully expected—a decisive, ideological break from the compromised Bush years on issues such as immigration and foreign policy.

Those hopes have been disappointed.

First, tough immigration restrictions were supposed to be a unifying rallying cry—the defining domestic commitment of the post-Bush Republican coalition. Illegal immigration was framed as a simple political issue: Since illegal immigrants are just another type of criminal, targeting them is merely a defense of the rule of law.

But a young woman who dies in the desert during a perilous crossing for the dream of living in America is not the moral equivalent of a drug dealer. Millions of hardworking, religious, family-oriented neighbors make unlikely “criminals.” And treating them as such alienates an even larger group of Hispanic citizens.

Immigration is not a simple political issue like crime; it is a complex political issue like affirmative action. Many Americans, and most Republicans, oppose affirmative action. But a candidate who makes this issue the emotional centerpiece of his or her campaign gains a taint of intolerance. The choice itself symbolizes a divisive approach to politics. This is the frequent problem with poll-driven candidates: It is possible to embrace a popular position and still appear small and opportunistic in the process.

As the primaries progressed, John McCain was forced to trim on the immigration issue. But he did not surrender his previous convictions like Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee—who used their white flags as campaign banners. The most pro-immigration Republican candidate is likely to be the Republican nominee—not because his view on this topic prevailed, but because a strong, appealing presidential candidate does not target millions of men and women as a political strategy.

Second, some conservatives expected the Republican nominee to play down Bush’s foreign policy idealism and focus narrowly on direct American interests. Bush’s democracy agenda was criticized by some traditionalists and realists as “utopian Wilsonianism” and “as un-conservative as it can be.” Fred Thompson attempted to curry conservative favor in South Carolina by deriding Bush’s increases in global AIDS funding as a diversion from real American needs.

But John McCain displayed the most ideological continuity with Bush’s moral internationalism. McCain has argued that the “protection and promotion of the democratic ideal” is the “surest source of security and peace.” He calls for a “League of Democracies” that would “relieve human suffering in places such as Darfur, combat HIV/AIDS in sub-SaharanAfrica, fashion better policies to confront environmental crises. . . .” And McCain is one of the strongest Republican supporters (along with Huckabee) of the commitments of the bipartisan ONE Campaign to treat global AIDS, eradicate malaria, fight hunger and provide clean water in the poorest places on Earth. (By way of disclosure, I sit on the advisory board of ONE Vote ‘08.)

This kind of foreign policy idealism has been reaffirmed not because it is wildly popular but because it is unavoidable. America faces a series of challenges—from terrorism to drug cartels to infectious disease—that take root in failed regions of the world. Our efforts to oppose despair and disorder have a very realistic purpose. The tradition of moral internationalism—which reaches back to Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan—is more necessary than ever. And it is durable enough to survive some serious, early mistakes in Iraq.

The lessons of the McCain resurrection run deeper than the limits of talk radio: Candidates of unity are more appealing and electable. American ideals are indispensable in the conduct of American foreign policy.

Some conservatives have reacted with anger. For others of us, there is only relief.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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