I posted a squib on the National Review website about a robo call I received from John McCain (Virginia's primary is Tuesday). The call stressed that he would, if elected, be a down-the-line limited government conservative who would never raise taxes, would defend life, would enforce immigration laws and would win the war on terror. The candidate is trying, I said, to meet conservatives "more than halfway." The response of readers was, shall we say, emphatic.
One lady wrote that she would never vote for him as "He is the most disloyal, ill-tempered man and he brings out the worse in all of us...." Several readers made the point that after decades of suffering abuse at McCain's hands, conservatives are not going to fall into line for him now, no matter what blandishments he offers.
I know how they feel. The problem with McCain is not just that he strays. George Bush has strayed from conservatism, too. So has Fred Thompson. Certainly Mitt Romney has as well. But Sen. McCain has a knack for saying things in just the tones and accents that liberals prefer. In 2000, he condemned the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance." In 2004, when Sen. John Kerry was getting his comeuppance from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, vets who had known him during the war and couldn't remain silent as the Democratic nominee distorted his war record, McCain weighed in by calling the Swift Boaters "dishonorable and dishonest." When the Bush Administration was being vilified as a nest of Torquemadas for using waterboarding on three occasions, McCain came forward to condemn waterboarding as torture.
McCain was a Vietnam hero. Conservatives in particular revere him for this. Indeed, his return from the political grave can probably be traced to the moment (Oct. 22) when he joshingly referred to having missed the Woodstock music festival in 1969 because "I was tied up at the time." In that instant, he came to personify for many the conservative side of the great 1960s chasm that (Barack Obama's irenic rhetoric notwithstanding) continues to divide our society. Not only was he not smoking pot and lolling in the mud with his girlfriend, you could almost hear Republicans telling themselves, he's standing up to torture at the hands of America's enemies!
And yet, a better man would not stoop to suggesting that military service is the only way to show love of country and sneer that -- unlike Romney -- he served for "patriotism, not profit." Profit is a four-letter word in the McCain vocabulary, whether applied to "Big Pharma" or other businesses.
McCain reaches too hard and too transparently to turn everything into a contest about military service. When Romney observed that Bob Dole wouldn't necessarily be the one he'd want an endorsement from, McCain pronounced himself "very sad and disappointed to see that kind of comment about a person who was an American war hero" and demanded that Romney apologize!
There is a strutting self-righteousness about McCain that goes hand in hand with a nitroglycerin temper. He flatters himself that his colleagues in the Senate dislike him because he stands up for principle whereas they sell their souls for pork. Not exactly. He is disliked because on many, many occasions, he has been disrespectful, belligerent and vulgar to those who differ with him.
Bradley Smith, former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission and the leading legal scholar on campaign finance issues, experienced the McCain treatment firsthand. Because Smith opposed limits on political speech, he was denounced as "corrupt" by the senator (as was Commissioner Ellen Weintraub). Smith, who lives modestly, jokes that his wife has complained about the absence of jewels and furs.
Though he served on the commission for five years and made several attempts to meet with McCain to discuss the issues, Smith was rebuffed. The two did accidentally meet outside a hearing room in 2004 when they were both scheduled to testify before the Senate rules committee. At first, McCain grasped Smith's outstretched hand (Smith was in a wheelchair, recovering from surgery), but when he recognized his campaign finance opponent, he snatched his hand back, snarling, "I'm not going to shake your hand. You're a bully. You have no regard for the Constitution. You're corrupt."
Smith, a soft-spoken scholar, ardent patriot and lifelong conservative Republican, cannot, as a matter of honor, pull the lever for McCain. He is far from alone, and that is the Republican Party's heartbreak in 2008.