The bitter squabbling on the right over the presidential nomination has now entered a dangerous phase. Politics is about winning elections, not winning prizes for ideological purity. Do the conservatives who consider John McCain an apostate really believe their cause will be better served by having Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the White House? Because their truculence at the point when Republicans should be uniting is almost guaranteed to produce that result.
To his credit, Mitt Romney was not willing to make that gamble. "I cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror," Romney told a group of conservatives at the CPAC conference on Thursday. "If this were only about me, I'd go on. If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Sen. Clinton or Obama would win," he said.
"But I entered this race because I love America," he added. "And because I love America, in this time of war, I feel I have to stand aside for our country and our party."
Now the question is: will the hard-line anti-McCainites do the same? Consider the alternative -- what a Democrat will mean for conservative principles.
Both Clinton and Obama committed to pulling out of Iraq, regardless of the consequences. The only difference is that Obama wants to pull out immediately and Clinton says she wants the troops out within a year of taking office.
If Clinton or Obama is president, either one will nominate judges to the Supreme Court who favor unlimited abortion rights and government funding for abortion.
A president Clinton or Obama will expand the size of government and raise taxes to pay for that expansion.
John McCain, on the other hand, is committed to winning in Iraq. He supported putting in more American troops to accomplish that goal, at a time when even some Republicans were quietly talking about exit strategies. And he understands that the fight against Islamo-fascism today is as important as the fight against communism in the 20th century.
On the signature issue of social conservatism -- abortion -- McCain's lifetime record speaks for itself. He sponsored the ban on federal funding of abortion in 1987. He has consistently supported parental notification for minors seeking abortions. He also opposed partial-birth abortion, voting not only to support the ban, but twice to override President Bill Clinton's veto of the legislation when he was in office. The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) gives McCain a 0 percent rating.
And on economic issues, his lifetime record is one of opposing tax increases, favoring tax cuts and importantly, skewering even his fellow Republicans when they engaged in pork-barrel spending.
The last thing that McCain should do now is to try to remake himself in order to satisfy his most vituperative critics on the right. The man endured five years of imprisonment and torture by the communists in Vietnam. Somehow I don't think hot air from Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter will make him repudiate what he believes in now.
And if it did, McCain would lose his strongest advantage -- namely a reputation as someone with true convictions. You don't have to agree with him on every issue. But at least you know he is not willing to say anything just to get elected. In this era of poll-driven politics, it's refreshing to be able to rely on a candidate's word.
Conservatives could stay home in November -- and some notable conservatives are threatening to do just that. If so, they will hand the election to the Democrats. But surely most conservatives understand that their principles and values will advance a lot further under a President McCain than a President Clinton or Obama.
There's a lot of time between now and Election Day for anti-McCain conservatives to come to their senses. But, the sooner, the better.