Bush and McCain Should Show for Conservative Events

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Feb 05, 2007 8:14 AM

Woody Allen once famously said, "Eighty percent of life is just showing up," and he was right. In politics, merely "showing up" can cover a multitude of sins (Hillary's "listening tour" was a prime example).

Now, you might argue that if time is the most important commodity on a political campaign, it makes no sense to spend too much time wooing folks who have already decided not to support you. That would be true, were it not for the fact that your attendance (or snub) would be reported much more widely.

A prime example of this seems to be playing out right now. Over at RedState,Rob Bluey has a post up about John McCain's missed opportunity with conservatives:

"Sen. John McCain's decision to skip the Heritage Foundation's Conservative Members Retreat in Baltimore last week sent a symbolic message to the 50-some Republicans in attendance. While McCain may not have won over any members by appearing at the retreat, his absence allowed former Gov. Mitt Romney to seize the spotlight and continue to build relationships with House Republicans."

I tend to agree. While some conservative "insiders" (such as Dr. Dobson, for example); seem to have decided against John McCain, the average conservative voter does not necessarily take his cues from conservative leaders or elected officials (for this reason, endorsements are often overrated).  McCain, who has a strong Pro-Life record, stands to win the support of many outside-the-beltway conservatives. And by showing up at conservatives events, he would be paying homage to these grassroots conservatives.

This isn't an original concept: Why did Ross Perot address the Christian Coalition in 1996? He had to have known that his immediate audience -- the folks in the room with him -- would support Gary Bauer or Alan Keyes -- or whoever was running that year as the "conservative" favorite. And while he knew the members in attendance wouldn't vote for him, he also knew that they would, at least, be respectful of him (they would applaud, etc.)

By addressing the Christian Coalition, Perot was really sending a message to the millions of Christians around the nation who were watching on TV. He was telling them that he was one of them -- and that he needed their vote. He wasn't going to get Pat Robertson's vote -- but he might get the vote of Christian Pat Smith, watching on the TV in Hagerstown, MD.

There are plenty of examples of politicians scoring points by going into the "lions' den," so to speak. Often, they get credit for having the guts to show up.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush addressed the NAACP Convention. While he had to know that he would not win the votes of many NAACP members in attendance, he was really sending a message to African-Americans around the nation. And he was also sending a message to millions of white soccer-moms, who would see it on the news, hear about "the soft bigotry of low expectations," and realize that he was a compassionate conservative they could count on.

While my good friend Rob Bluey laments the "50-some Republicans" that McCain failed to address, the fact is they aren't his primary audience (as Rob notes, many of them are already in the Romney camp). But in attending these events, McCain has the opportunity to send a symbolic message to grassroots conservatives -- the ones who might read about the Heritage event in Bluey's blog.

Romney, who is still fending off criticism that he has flip-flopped on conservative social issues, at least deserves our admiration for showing up.

Of course, this lesson could just as easily apply to President George W. Bush. While he has spoken at the NAACP Convention -- and recently spoke at the DNC Winter Meeting -- he has never spoken at a Right to Life rally (in person) -- and he has never attended a CPAC convention.

If John McCain needs to attend conservative meetings, then George W. Bush -- a man with little support outside his base -- really needs to "show up" and pay homage to his base. Mr. Bush should make a surprise appearance at CPAC 2007.  (CPAC is the Conservative Political Action Conference -- the largest gathering of conservatives each year).

Ronald Reagan spoke at many CPAC conventions. In his 1985 address, he said: "... I always see the Conservative Political Action Conference speech as my opportunity to 'dance with the one that brung ya'."

For a constituency with supposedly so much power, we conservatives are too often ignored and avoided. You may not always agree with us, but at least, show up. You've gotta 'dance with the one that brung ya'.  President Bush has made surprise visits to more hostile environments than the Omni Shoreham Hotel.  He ought to show up at least once.