The GOP is a perplexing party this election. Say what you will about their legislative record during the past several years, or the family values Congressmen that like to have sex with dudes, but the GOP’s behavior as a party has been nothing if not unified and consistent. Very rarely do you see internal policy squabbling spill into the press, and if one of their members screws up and makes the party look bad, he’s promptly devoured within the next news cycle. Just look at how quickly Mitt Romney let go of pal Larry Craig’s hand and let him plummet down the cliff face. Again, you might not like how they govern, but policy discipline has nevertheless been a strength. Which makes the conservative gauntlet that presumptive presidential nominee John McCain has been forced to run a real head-scratcher. Watching the “conservative base” throw votes at the quixotic Mike Huckabee the way they have been, one gets the feeling that if John McCain doesn’t punch a Mexican immigrant in the face on camera pretty soon, then the base is willing to just stay home in the general.
Of course, McCain has bigger headaches at the moment, namely that unbelievably weak New York Times article that turned a paragraph’s worth of uncorroborated insinuation about an affair with a lobbyist into a pointed rehash of McCain’s ethics record. However, the article was so poorly sourced, and the substantive criticisms of McCain’s seeming ethical missteps will of course be drowned out by the infidelity accusations which will go nowhere, so this storm is probably going to blow over pretty soon. Heck, it’s more likely that McCain’s crew will get this spun into a referendum on responsible reporting during a presidential election and take the heat off their candidate. Which will be good, because there’s going to be plenty of hot air blown in the senator’s direction by the conservatives.
If conservatives get their way and put McCain through a very public litmus test-style examination of his conservative bona fides and force him to kiss the ring, they will have won a decidedly phyrric victory. I think that after 8 years of Bush and the rout the Republicans suffered in the last Congressional elections, voting patterns in the ’08 presidential election will turn out to be a repudiation of the conservative policies of the past 8 years. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the country is suddenly going to veer left by any means, but moderates are going to have their say, and the candidate that can pull most of them along is probably going to win. Popularity with moderates is McCain’s great strength, and forcing him to kowtow to the conservative wing of the party is going to sap that strength.
This part of the GOP seems unable to understand how their priorities fit into the greater context of our national condition. The economy is weak, we are fighting two expensive hot wars as well as ramping up spending on the War on Terror in general, entitlement spending is set to expand dramatically as baby boomers retire, and yet they want to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. When McCain comes out against the cuts becoming permanent, the Club for Growth loses its shit. I’m a Republican, and I like low taxes too, but depriving the government of tax revenue at this juncture strikes me as stupid, and I’m willing to bet it strikes a lot of people as stupid. The problem with the GOP on taxes is emblematic of their problems nationwide – they are holding steadfastly to principles that are fine when confined to philosophy, but must be flexible when faced with reality. Fiscal conservatism is a good philosophy. But the conservative wing of the GOP has diluted the meaning of fiscal conservatism – no longer a prudent balancing of budgetary priorities with an eye towards keeping taxes and government spending low, but rather low taxes no matter what macroeconomic conditions dictate. McCain should be applauded for expressing skepticism about cutting taxes when there’s so much to pay for. He is, instead, vilified.
He also catches a fair amount of hell for his environmental policies. He’s opposed to drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve, for example. Never mind that it’s an ecologically responsible and moral position to take, drilling for oil in Alaska would have precious little effect on fuel prices. But forget all that, the conservatives pipe up that it “makes us more dependent on foreign oil.” Driving big cars and failing to adopt energy efficient technologies is what makes us more dependent on foreign oil…yet conservatives and their oil company donors continue to make themselves look both environmentally destructive and avaricious in the extreme as the rest of the nation looks on and public opinion in favor of protecting the environment mounts. It’s because these elements of the GOP don’t realize how far off the reservation, nationally, they are that McCain loses points for such a reasonable position…they don’t get that when McCain wins points with them, he loses votes.
The story right now is the prospect that a drawn-out Obama-Clinton fight for the nomination will lead to months of internecine fighting within the Democratic party and cleave it in two. I don’t think that’s an issue facing the Republicans – they have to worry instead about the possibility that a conservative pounding will leave them with a weakened John McCain for the general election and will cause long-term alienation among undecided voters. After a wide-open primary for both parties and no incumbent VP in the running, this is a branding election. If the GOP lets a pill-popping fat man and his ilk brand them, they’re going to find themselves losing often and badly.