Cliff May

I’m reminded of the story about the young nun who asked the Mother Superior if it was alright to smoke a cigarette while praying. The Mother Superior erupted in anger at the very idea. Meekly, the nun posed a second question: “Is it alright to pray while smoking a cigarette?” That, the Mother Superior responded, is not just alright, it is commendable.

Among conservatives, there is now much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the likelihood that John McCain will become the Republican candidate for president. On such important issues as immigration, climate change, the granting of new rights to unlawful enemy combatants, and freedom of political speech, McCain’s positions, they say (with justification) are indistinguishable from those of a Democrat.

But imagine a Democratic presidential candidate who vehemently opposed American retreat from the battle with al-Qaeda in Iraq, clearly grasped the broader threat posed by militant Islamism, favored judges who respect the authority of the Constitution and the sanctity of life, and saw merit in lower taxes and fiscal responsibility. That, a conservative might say, would be not just alright, it would be commendable.

Conservatives – I count myself among them -- are entitled to fight for the most conservative candidate. But winning is not an entitlement. Nor is it conservative to say that if your candidate comes in second, you’d just as soon return the White House to the Clintons or hand the keys to Barack Obama – a candidate endorsed by the extremists at

Measured by a conservative’s yardstick, all the Republican candidates this season have been flawed. Rudy Giuliani revitalized New York City, but he is hardly a social conservative. Mike Huckabee is a social conservative but he is neither an economic conservative nor a national security hawk. Ron Paul is not a conservative at all but rather a dogmatic libertarian (which is somewhat akin to being an obsessive-compulsive anarchist). Fred Thompson is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative but he appeared to regard the presidency as a chore he was willing to endure rather than a challenge he was eager to embrace.

As for Mitt Romney, his supporters – including many of my friends and colleagues -- are correct to say he is the most conservative candidate left standing. But his critics also are correct to say he has not always seemed quite so rock-ribbed and that he doesn’t seem to have the knack of connecting emotionally with voters.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.