Michael Gerson

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.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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