I’ve given quite a bit of thought to that question this week because I happen to be one of those freaking out over the prospect of a McCain nomination.
Some cite McCain’s positions and past votes and say he is on the wrong side of too many issues, but the same can be said of George Bush. Why does McCain seem to ignite such emotion and strong opposition in so many? There are a lot of positions McCain has taken that have angered conservatives, to be sure. Opposition to the Bush tax cuts, McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, Gang of 14, the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, global warming and drilling in ANWR are just a few.
The strong negative reaction from conservatives is not solely because of his positions on issues, though. The reason so many conservatives are concerned about the prospect of a McCain nomination and a McCain presidency has almost as much to do with the way McCain has taken the positions he has, as the positions themselves.
As I often tell my children when they get in trouble for talking back or giving me attitude, sometimes it is not what you say, but rather how you say it.
I was not happy about McCain’s opposition to the Bush tax cuts. As disappointed as I was with his vote, though, what really angered me was the "tax cuts for the rich" rhetoric he used to explain his opposition. I think it is horrible when Democrats play that class warfare game, but realize that many of them actually believe it and even those who don’t believe it know they need to say it because that is what their base wants to hear. It was hard for me to imagine any reason a true conservative would want to say such things. I still can't.
For many years McCain has displayed what appears to be a need for the love and acceptance of the media and Democrats. He often seemed to go out of his way to find fault with those in his own party in order to further cultivate his maverick persona. Instead of being a representative of the Republican party, or even of conservatism, he often emphasized his differences with others in the party and the movement, or allowed those in the media to do so for him.
I suspect many of those “freaking out” about McCain being the standard bearer for the Republican party have gone through the same progression I have over the past year.
McCain has been working hard for a year or so now to assure conservatives that he is one of them. His strong support for the war effort and the surge went a long way in making that case. He also softened his rhetoric against those in his own party. Over the summer I forgot many of the reasons I had opposed McCain as a presidential candidate. When he was down in the polls and did not appear likely to have a shot at the nomination, it was easy to forgive and forget.
When McCain started winning primaries and took the lead in the national polls, though, some of those reasons for my original opposition starting seeping back into my memory.
One of my earliest recollections of a negative reaction to McCain was in 2000 over what appeared to me to be a meltdown in South Carolina over “dirty tricks.” In 2000, going into the South Carolina primary, McCain ran a television ad accusing George Bush of “twisting the truth like Clinton,” while at the same time complaining about negative campaign tactics. I couldn't help but wonder how he would react to criticism and dirty campaign tactics from Democrats in a general election.
Comparing a fellow Republican to Bill Clinton back in 2000, knowing there was a good possibility that candidate would end up being the nominee and Democrats could use those words to discredit him, did not sit well with me at all. It led me to believe I could not trust McCain to do what was in the best interest of the party.
In 2001, speculation that McCain might change his party affiliation to switch the balance of power in the Senate only fueled that mistrust.
In 2004, McCain made his "dishonest and dishonorable" comment regarding the Swift Boat Vets. He sided with John Kerry, rather than with 250 plus Vietnam vets, including some fellow POWs. He didn't just say that he would have to look into the claims of the Swifties, or that he didn't know the specifics. No. He called the actions of those men "dishonest and dishonorable." Not only did he not apologize for that comment, but he reportedly entertained the idea of running with John Kerry.
I had put much of that out of my mind though. It is now 2008 and my desire to see Republicans retain control of the White House, and particularly to see a Republican commander in chief, seemed most important and polls repeatedly showed McCain the candidate most likely to beat a Democrat in November. The performance of McCain in the most recent debate, characterized by some as angry and sneering, along with what appear to be unfair attacks on Mitt Romney over the issue of a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, brought it all back – the temper I saw in 2000, the repeated high profile breaks with Republicans on big issues and the flirtations with Democrats about switching parties. Unlike some conservatives I am hearing from, I will vote for McCain in November if he is the nominee. Even for all his faults, McCain has many strengths and is vastly superior to Hillary or Obama. He has impressed me on the conference calls he has held frequently with bloggers where he has patiently and candidly answered any question put to him. Foreign policy/defense is one of my top issues, and I think McCain will be strong there.
It will take a lot to convince me that he can be trusted on issues important to conservatives, though, or even that he can be trusted to positively represent the party. He has built his entire political persona on showing how much he differs from Republicans and conservatives. That does not bode well for those wanting a White House that is more conservative than the current one.