Why John McCain's More Conservative Than You Think

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Jan 21, 2007 5:00 PM

There's a scene in the Godfather II, where Frankie Pentangeli says to Michael: 

Your father liked Hyman Roth, your father did business with Hyman Roth, but your father never trusted Hyman Roth.

Sometimes I get the feeling that's how conservatives feel about John McCain.  When it's convenient, they do business with him, but -- for whatever reason -- they don't fully trust him.  In many ways, this doesn't make sense.  A close look at McCain's voting record clearly demonstrates that he is a conservative on the issues that conservatives should care about.

Note: In the past, I've been very critical of McCain -- especially McCain/Feingold (listen to this NPR interview, if you're interested). And I am certainly not prepared to endorse him. But I must confess to being surprised by the level of dislike that some conservatives have for this man who is, not only a war hero, but (if you look at his record), a proven conservative (that is, if you trust his voting record).

As the liberal blog Daily Kos recently wrote:

McCain was at least as conservative as George W. Bush (circa 2000) on the bread and butter conservative issues: pro-life and anti-tax. So what was the problem? The simple fact is that Republican voters didn't like him all that much."

Conservatives tend to pride themselves in making decisions based on logic and reason. But ask most conservatives what they don't like about John McCain, and they'd be hard-pressed to give you a real reason. They may say they just don't "feel" he's conservative enough. And that's a fine reason to dislike someone, if you're willing to admit your decision is based on emotion, not facts.

So why do a lot of conservatives dislike John McCain?

National Journal's Chuck Todd may have been on to something when (on MSNBC) he hypothesized that McCain's just not optimistic enough for conservatives (interestingly, prior to Ronald Reagan, conservatism was generally the more pessimistic philosophy). But I think Daily Kos has it right when they say some Republican voters just didn't like him all that much.  Or, as Frankie Pentangeli might say, they just don't trust him.

But the level of passionate opposition to McCain still seems irrational to me. If there were a proven conservative candidate to coalesce around, I would understand it. But just take a look at the GOP field, and you'll see that there is no "100 percent" candidate out there to support:

  • Mitt Romney may be the most conservative GOP frontrunner, but he has been criticized for his recent conversion to the pro-Life side. Meanwhile, John McCain has a proven track record of being pro-Life.
  • Rudy ... well, enough said. I think we could agree John McCain is more conservative than Rudy...
  • Sam Brownback has been criticized by conservatives for being pro-amnesty. Illegal immigration is a hot-button issue, and Brownback's record won't win him many conservative friends. He's a solid social conservative, but even if he could win, he isn't 100 percent philosophically pure because of the amnesty issue.
  • Newt Gingrich, though brilliant, has been accused (by some) of being a conservative opportunist. Additionally, some feel his past personal life isn't "conservative." Newt may be the conservative that conservatives could truly get excited about. But he's not in the race, anyway.
  • Mike Huckabee is generally thought of as a solid social conservative, but he is also a tax-hiker. Fiscal conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth have been outspoken in their opposition to him. Angering "The Club" was a poor choice for the man from Hope.

... My point is that there is no perfect candidate out there. Granted, John McCain isn't 100 percent philosophically pure, but neither is Romney, Rudy, Brownback, Newt, or Huckabee (by the way, even Ronald Reagan didn't have a perfect record).

So how does John McCain's record stack up? Better than you think.

Throughout his career, John McCain has been reliably pro-life (is there any bigger litmus test in the conservative movement?) You could argue that Sam Brownback is a more committed social conservative, but if you are looking at the current frontrunners (and it's pretty clear this election is going to be wrapped up sooner than past elections), McCain's pro-life credentials clearly trump both Romney (who, as recently as the 90s was pro-choice) and Rudy (need I say more?). So if the life issue is your bailiwick, McCain should be your candidate, right?

If you can judge a man by his enemies, then he's in good shape on the Life issue; Sen. McCain has a zero percent rating from both NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood. (NARAL Website, www.prochoiceamerica.org, Accessed 1/19/07; Planned Parenthood Website, www.ppaction.org, Accessed 1/19/07).

It should come as no surprise that the pro-abortion lobby hates him; Sen. McCain voted eight times to ban partial-birth abortions, including voting twice to overturn Clinton's Veto of the ban. Sen. McCain also voted against using federal money to distribute the "Morning-After" abortion pill in schools.

Aside from his pro-Life credentials, McCain is also a budget hawk. During the 109th Congress, Citizens Against Government Waste gave McCain A 91% rating. (Citizens Against Government Waste Website, www.cagw.org, Accessed 1/14/07).

Bob Novak wrote of McCain in the Washington Post: "If party leaders in Congress at long last heed McCain's counsel [on spending], it would mark the beginning of wisdom." (Robert Novak, Op-Ed, "Republican Blindness," The Washington Post, 11/9/06)

During The 109th Congress, Citizens Against Government Waste Gave McCain A 91% Rating. (Citizens Against Government Waste Website, www.cagw.org, Accessed 1/14/07)

If being pro-Life -- and being a budget hawk -- isn't your cup of tea, perhaps you would agree that the war on terror is the most important issue facing the Western civilization today?

Assuming you agree with that hypothesis, it would be difficult to find a candidate with better credentials than John McCain. Of course, credentials aren't everything. So even if you ignore the obvious fact that he served in the military, McCain's a proven hawk who has stood with President Bush on Iraq.

It would be very hard for anyone to honestly argue that Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, or Sam Brownback are better prepared to win the war on terror than John McCain. Any Republican would be better than Hillary -- but McCain's background should count for something. Granted, Romney and Huckabee have executive experience, but one wonders if that might be as much of an advantage in a post-9-11 world (voters might have elected an Arkansas governor in 1992, but this is a different world).

Newt Gingrich has brilliant ideas on the winning the war on terror, but would his brilliant ideas and charismatic style be able to match McCain's real-life experience? And while Rudy certainly has experience on domestic issues, he lacks McCain's international and military experience.

Conservatives who reject McCain must realize there is no pure conservative in the race. Romney's controversial past positions on both the life and homosexual issue have been widely reported. Rudy's positions on partial-birth abortion and homosexuality -- combined with his personal background -- disqualify him from most conservatives. Huckabee is despised by fiscal conservatives such as the Club for Growth. Brownback is squishy on immigration. Newt Gingrich's commitment to conservatism has been questioned by some (who believe it is more opportunistic than sincere), and his personal background has also given some conservatives pause.

So I can understand it when other conservatives say McCain isn't perfect; he isn't (As I mentioned, I have a major disagreement with him on campaign finance reform, for example). But when you compare his record to his potential opponent's records, you have to wonder why many conservatives oppose him so vehemently.

The fact that he is the favorite to win the nomination is another interesting twist. Republicans almost always nominate the frontrunner (remember Bob Dole?). The bottom line is that if history is the best predictor of the future, John McCain will win the GOP nomination. With Hillarly Clinton now officially in the race, conservatives may soften their opposition to candidates like McCain and Romney.  And if McCain should win the nomination, it will be interesting to see what his conservative enemies say when he's the only person standing between us and Hillary Clinton.