Debra J. Saunders

Wednesday's CNN-YouTube debate began with a ditty by Chris Nandor of Snohomish, Wash., on the eight GOP hopefuls. Sen. John McCain, Nandor sang, "is loved by many, but hated by the rest."

Why do so many Republicans loathe John McCain?

No Republican candidate has been better in pushing to make sure that the sacrifices made by U.S. troops in Iraq are not made in vain -- and there is no issue more important than this war. McCain spent Thanksgiving visiting the front, and he carried back the message he heard from those serving: "Let us win."

McCain has spared no one -- including President Bush and his administration -- in his righteous desire to do right by the troops. "I am the only one on this stage," McCain noted, "that said the Rumsfeld strategy was failing and was doomed to failure. I'm the only one on this stage that said we've got to have a new strategy, and that's the strategy we're employing now."

Maybe that's part of the problem. When I asked Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and former adviser to ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, why so many Republicans hate McCain, Whalen saw two main reasons: Much of McCain's reputation "has come at George Bush's expense," and, "He's too beloved by the media."

Too bad the media are a fickle crew, who this go-round are smitten with the cuddly conservative, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. It's more than a bit bizarre. When McCain called the Rev. Jerry Falwell an agent of "intolerance" in 2000, the media loved him. When McCain appeared next to Falwell at Liberty University last year, pundits labeled the event -- a savvy political move to reach out to Falwell's values voters -- a sellout to the religious right. So who's their new crush? An ordained Southern Baptist minister. Go figure.

GOP voters resented profligate spending under the now-dethroned Republican leadership in Congress. They should love McCain, who crusaded against earmarks and pork-barrel spending when it didn't win him many friends in power circles.

Perhaps the problem is that McCain is not just talk. When Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist asked the candidates if they would sign the group's pledge not to raise taxes, McCain said no: "My pledge and my record is up to the American people, not up to any organization."

The Norquist exchange may signal a sea change in Republican politics. Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Tom Tancredo of Colorado said they would sign the ATR pledge, and have. Rudy Giuliani said he would, but hasn't. (In October, an aide told me that Giuliani "doesn't sign pledges.")

Because it is now clear that no-new-taxes pledges don't tamp down government spending, McCain -- and Republican rivals Fred Thompson, Ron Paul and Duncan Hunter -- said they oppose tax hikes, but refused to sign a pledge they are not 100 percent certain to keep.

Republican readers often tell me that they will never forgive McCain for his 2002 campaign finance reform bill that restricts political advertising. Come on. Thanks to well-heeled lawyers, the courts are gutting McCain-Feingold. To them I say: Let go of it. There are more important issues -- like a war.

Americans say that they are looking for strong leaders. In McCain, you see a man who doesn't shift his positions just to please people, yet is realistic enough to realize when it is right to bend.

McCain still was wrong when he argued that this year's failed Senate immigration bill would not have provided "amnesty" to illegal immigrants. But he has had the good sense to let voters know that he has heard their outrage and understands that border enforcement must precede any measures to set a path toward legalization for qualifying illegal immigrants.

My position on immigration reform is closer to those of Romney and Giuliani -- but who do they think they're kidding as they preen about how tough they've been on the issue? In a different time, they had a more forgiving attitude toward illegal immigrants. McCain is simply more honest about why he has changed.

I want the government to be much tougher on enforcing immigration policies with employers, but I also want a president with a heart. Or, as McCain put it, "We need to sit down as Americans and recognize that these are God's children, as well."

Maybe McCain's problem is that he tells people things they don't want to hear.

I still say that now-Attorney General Michael Mukasey was right to tell the Senate that he would not classify waterboarding (simulated drowning during interrogation) as illegal. That said, when McCain, who was tortured during his five years in a Vietnamese POW camp, says that as commander in chief, "We will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America," I'll salute.

New York Times columnist David Brooks described McCain as the only great man from either party in the race. As McCain said of his support of the Senate immigration bill, "I came to the Senate not to do the easy things, but the hard things." But do voters want the hard things?


Debra J. Saunders


 
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