Empty, Open Arms
John McCain Wants Conservatives by His Side. Fine, They Say, Just Move This Way.

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Chris Pohl came to the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington to peddle hats.

As political gimmicks go, his was rather ingenious: a Russian ushanka, complete with fake-fur ear flaps, stamped with the red Communist hammer and sickle and adorned with interchangeable name tags -- Hillary '08 or Obama '08. Twenty-five bucks.

In the hallways, he handed out red business cards that listed his name only as "Karl" (as in Marx) and set up a booth at which bottles of red-colored lemonade ("Leninade") were dispensed next to a life-size cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton herself. Pohl was far down the road of cleverness and -- he hoped -- economic salvation. "I'm a subprime casualty," said Pohl, who lost his job at a mortgage company in November. "So now I'm selling hats."

"Karl" was certainly in the right place to unveil his ushanka: CPAC is the preeminent yearly gathering of conservative activists. Here, they embraced the message of his hats, that electing either Clinton or Barack Obama president would be like installing Vladimir Lenin in the White House. High-fives and chuckles everywhere.

But it occurred to Pohl, in this uneasy way, that the hat was really a general-election prop, and conservatives are not yet ready to start the general election. Their own party's presumptive nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, is not their kind. Many don't like him, don't trust him, hate that he is so cozy with the media, and worry that, once elected, he'll huddle and compromise with Democrats and give away their store. Too much Straight Talk and not enough street fighter.

"That's why my hat's a little ahead of its time," Pohl lamented.

In the nearly three weeks since McCain himself was both booed and cheered at CPAC, his surrogates and operatives have been making calls and strategic visits, trying to quell the unhappy roar within the GOP's base. But nothing has worked. In a strange, dumb-luck kind of way, the McCain campaign thought it had gotten a break no one would ever wish for: a New York Times story that raised the possibility of an affair between the senator and an attractive lobbyist drew an immediate backlash from conservatives, who rallied to McCain's side. But that temporary defense was little more than a respite for the most ardent ideological warriors.

"This assumption that people who defended him are now on board is naive," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, a CPAC co-sponsor. "I think he's got a ways to go. If he really wants an enthusiastic base in the fall, he is going to have to do more than sit there and hope that it comes to him."

Keene was one of those on the receiving end of a McCain adviser's recent phone call. The pitch, as Keene described it: Republican loyalty demands that all wings of the party come together in the interest of retaining the White House. Unconvincing, Keene said.

"Part of the problem he has on the right is directly traceable to the attitudes he has expressed over the years toward conservatives, which has led to a queasy feeling on their part," Keene continued. "I have seen no real evidence of an attempt to find out what the real differences are and try to bridge the gap. I think they have some appreciation of the problem, but I don't know if they have a commitment to do anything about it."

McCain strategist Charlie Black pointed to recent national polls that show his candidate, on average, getting 85 percent of the Republican vote against either prospective Democratic nominee. "We don't have a huge problem at the voter level," noted Black. "It only matters what happens in November, and McCain is popular with Republican rank-and-file voters."

As conservatives see it, here's the problem right now: In 24 primaries and caucuses, McCain never once carried voters who identified themselves as "very conservative," according to exit polls. And in a majority of the Republican nominating contests, those voters represented a third or more of the total voter turnout. Similarly, the exit polls show, McCain fared poorly with Republican voters who said the most important quality in a candidate is someone who "shares my values."

Tony Blankley, who was press secretary to former House speaker Newt Gingrich, wrote pointedly in the conservative publication Human Events: "It would be the first time in living memory that a Republican presidential nomination went to a candidate who was not merely opposed by a majority of the party but was actively despised by about half its rank-and-file voters across the country -- and by many, if not most, of its congressional officeholders."

The case against McCain has a number of specific counts, as his critics see it, notably his compromise in the Senate on immigration, his vote against the Bush tax cuts, his co-sponsorship of campaign finance reform, his position on global warming and his involvement in the bipartisan "Gang of 14" effort to break the procedural logjam on judicial nominees.

"John McCain gives the impression that he needs the conservatives to come to him," said Bay Buchanan, a conservative activist. "Basically, we've been abused for a dozen years here, and he gives us this fatherly kindness and expects us to get in line. He has to give us a reason to vote for him because his record is not enough for us."

Abused for a dozen years? This sense of beleaguerment -- if not entitlement -- is a familiar conservative posture. This is the wing that believes it built the modern Republican Party, that licked the stamps for the direct-mail operations and fueled the growth of talk radio. This is the wing that hands out the fliers outside churches and provides much of the passion and energy needed to combat opponents in national elections. This is the wing that likes its candidates to bow down and pledge fealty.

As some strategists see it, the question is not whether McCain will ultimately get the support of conservatives over, say, Barack Obama. It is whether he will win their hearts so that they will battle for him.

"It is so important in the presidential campaigns of our time, which are so close," said conservative GOP consultant Greg Mueller. "You want the entire apparatus involved. I have never heard of an independent activist, have you? I have heard of a conservative activist. We need them, because we need to get the vote out. That's Politics 101."

Politics 102 is this: Conservatives seem most at home -- and at their best -- when they are complaining about something. They love to put on the underdog's collar even when they are in power.

"Conservatives are always disputing something or other," observed Lee Edwards, a Heritage Foundation historian who has written widely about the conservative movement. "They are just a naturally disputatious lot."

This goes back, Edwards notes, to the beginning of the conservative movement, which was shaped by the 1953 publication of Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" and the founding of the magazine National Review. In the early days, the ideological debate within the GOP was often between traditional conservatives and libertarians. "This is a little bit like the Hatfields and the McCoys," said Edwards.

During the 1952 presidential campaign, displeased conservatives wanted to take a walk because their favorite candidate, Robert Taft, had been defeated by Dwight Eisenhower in a bitter nominating fight. Taft met with Ike, extracted a few concessions and helped to fend off a potential intraparty disaster that threatened Eisenhower's election.

Edwards maintains that conservatives often threaten, but often come around. In 1976, he said, conservatives preferred Ronald Reagan but ended up getting behind Gerald Ford, who ended up losing to Jimmy Carter. In 1988, they were lukewarm about George H.W. Bush, but the prospect of a Michael Dukakis presidency was even more revolting. In 2000, George W. Bush was hardly seen as a perfect movement conservative, but the idea of continuing the Clinton presidency with his vice president, Al Gore, couldn't be stomached. Conservatives have not always been happy with the Bush presidency, but they Swift-boated John Kerry in 2004 even as they pushed Bush to do more for them.

Edwards puts it this way: "Do you want an 82 percent conservative in McCain? Or do you want a 100 percent liberal in Obama?"

The alternative narrative is this: Conservatives stayed home in 1992, upset at Bush the elder for breaking his no-new-taxes pledge. Conservatives didn't rally behind Bob Dole in 1996, and look what happened to him. Some conservatives believe you have to die first before resurrection.

Saul Anuzis, the Michigan Republican Party chairman, doesn't believe in self-inflicted pain. "In the end, for conservatives, this is going to be a very simple choice. I think you will see a coalescence of the party behind McCain."

The McCain campaign hired the conservative consulting firm Shirley & Bannister to help. Craig Shirley, who is working on his second Reagan campaign biography and has strong ties to Reaganites, said his firm has been trying to open doors and close ranks. "At the end of the day, we're all going to be on the same team," Shirley said.

There has been considerable tension between the McCain camp and prominent talk-radio hosts, such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. And McCain may not have helped himself any in that world by quickly distancing himself from fiery conservative radio personality Bill Cunningham, who was the warm-up act at a McCain rally on Tuesday in Cincinnati. Cunningham's mocking of Obama drew a public rebuke of Cunningham and an apology from McCain. To which Cunningham fired back: He was now through with McCain, and would vote for Hillary Clinton.

"How does he repudiate me without knowing what he's repudiating?" Cunningham said later on his talk show.

McCain strategist Black acknowledged that there are still some problems with conservative talk-radio hosts and certain conservative leaders, but he noted that more and more are joining the McCain team each week. He specifically singled out former Cabinet secretary Jack Kemp, businessman (and onetime presidential candidate) Steve Forbes and former solicitor general Ted Olson.

"It's not unanimous yet, but we're working on it," said Black, who said private meetings with key figures are ongoing.

Forbes, who initially backed Rudolph Giuliani for president, had been skeptical of McCain, in part because of the senator's vote against the 2003 tax cuts. But after Giuliani dropped out, he began watching McCain more closely in debates and consulted with his economic advisers. "I feel comfortable now," Forbes said.

McCain has been reaching out to fiscal conservatives, Forbes said, by explaining that he understands that tax cuts can be an effective engine for the economy if done properly. His opposition in 2003, McCain has explained, was because Republicans had failed to restrain spending. In addition, Forbes noted McCain's crusade against pork-barrel spending and his proposals to get rid of the alternative minimum tax and to provide more incentives for business research and development.

"Economic conservatives are starting to warm up to him," Forbes asserted.

Those who are optimistic that McCain will ultimately pull the lion's share of conservatives his way often cite his comments about appointing judges in the mold of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.

They key, though, almost every conservative says -- "the home run," as David Keene put it -- is McCain's vice presidential choice. The nominee must be an unapologetic conservative, in the eyes of true believers.

"I think his veep candidate should be, has to be and probably will be either Jim DeMint [the South Carolina senator] or Mark Sanford [the South Carolina governor], and Mark's my guy," said conservative Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state.

Whoever it is, the sooner the better for Chris "Karl" Pohl, so he can get his hat business cranked up. "The ladies love them. They're sexy."

A Soviet history buff who lives in Southern California, Pohl is not so much upset with McCain as he is unmotivated by him. Like other conservatives, he's waiting to see something, hear something that gets him fired up.

"That's up to John McCain, I think, to convince us we won't have any more betrayals."

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta also contributed to this report.

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