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The Right and the "Wrongs" of McCain

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A number of political conservatives have been beating up on John McCain as insufficiently conservative. It's fathomable, but just barely so.

We catch a few fellow Republican senators and some conservative activists saying things like, "The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine" (Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi) and "McCain's record is as bad and liberal as Hillary's" (Ann Coulter, the columnist). Nor does it help that The New York Times is friendly to him. Or that Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed him the other day. Or I don't know, for the moment, the McCain backlash on the right seems out of control.

The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes instructs his fellow conservatives to "grow up."

I might myself put it this way: Who you got that's better? Meaning not only better but capable of winning the election?

There's Mike Huckabee, whose foreign-policy credentials are zilch and who, one suspects, for all the moral perspectives he expresses so well, hasn't thoroughly thought through the reasons that government regulation of the marketplace is generally a bad idea.

There is, or was, Fred Thompson, whose impact on the race was that of a Lincoln penny tossed into a reflecting pool.

There is, sort of, Ron Paul, whose sensible economic policies and craving for isolationism are out of sync.

There is, of course, Mitt Romney. The Romneyites are bitter at McCain. I'm not sure why. Presumably because they see their man as the true-blue Reaganite in the race. But that makes minimal sense. This is Mitt, who, in Massachusetts, made health-insurance acquisition compulsory without figuring out what to do with people who can't afford it. Nor, a few years ago, from the right's perspective, was Mitt up to snuff on gay rights and abortion. He has recanted on the social questions. Does this indemnify him against accusations of political perfidy?

The question resonates in another context: Mitt's lack of experience in national and international affairs. It's the same rap Mrs. Clinton is using on Barack Obama. Mitt might be OK in these departments, but to declare without equivocation that he's the better man to represent conservatives strikes me as bizarre.

Is McCain as conservative as true conservatives would like him? Of course not. He also might be a lot more reliable carrier of conservative water than they believe him to be, with his strong credentials on national defense -- the most important issue before us -- and a redoubtable mien that the likes of Ahmadinejad in Iran and perhaps even Putin in Russia might find impressive.

Whatever might be the "conservative" objection to this his anti-waterboarding stand, I don't see how anyone could think John McCain, USN (Ret.), ex-prisoner of war in Hanoi, is going to fold on the war against terror. The way a couple of Democrats I could name might fold if it suited their purposes.

A wise aphorism has it that the perfect is the enemy of the good. While conservatives tilt their noses expressively in the air at the idea of John McCain's representing a movement he votes with 85 percent of the time, Democrats offer the electorate two strong believers in the power of big government, two babes in the woods when it comes to foreign policy, two fast friends of every liberal interest from pro-choice to gay rights to let's-kill-the-Bush-tax-cuts.

I have just the feeling that, with conservatives, this moment is one in which pique cancels out reason -- a time for slamming doors and kicking the cat across the room -- just because here at the end of the Bush presidency, dreams of a conservative era flicker low.

I might not say to my fellow conservatives "grow up," as did Barnes. But I might counsel -- if anybody had the inclination to listen -- that the perfect president is harder to find than the perfect job or the perfect church. We do the best we can, and when we can't do any better, that's when we take the ballot and do things such as Ann Coulter instructs us not to do. Sorry, ma'am.

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