From the Right, He Looks Too Blue
The conservative talk-show community? Don't mind them -- they're irrelevant.
This message from John McCain surrogates and other members of the political class is filling the airwaves and op-ed pages. In the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes recently wrote that McCain needn't worry that conservatives are uncomfortable with his candidacy, because "while they love to grumble and grouse, conservatives tend to be loyal Republicans who wind up voting for their party's candidate."
In the same pages, novelist Mark Helprin, a former adviser to Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign, savaged conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin for daring to speak out against McCain. "Rather than playing recklessly with electoral politics by sabotaging their own party," he wrote, "each of these compulsive talkers might be a tad less self-righteous, look to the long run, discipline himself, suck it up, and be a man."
I know the conservative movement. I've been in the trenches fighting for an alphabet soup of conservative causes for 30 years. I've raised hundreds of millions of dollars for it. And I earnestly hope that McCain isn't listening to the advice he's getting from these folks. Their thinking betrays a fundamental misreading of the conservative pulse in America today.
Conservative leaders, particularly those in talk radio, cannot and will not be silent. They will not betray their principles and their audiences. Tens of millions of activists turn to them for guidance. These activists could be, and need to be, McCain's ground troops, but unless and until conservatives believe him -- and believe in him -- they will not work for his election. McCain may have the Beltway crowd in his corner, but grass-roots conservatives aren't sold.
Yet through his surrogates, McCain is attacking these leaders. This is beyond folly. It is political suicide.
For 20 years, the moderate establishment of the Republican Party has told conservatives to sit down, shut up and do as we're told. History shows that sometimes we bite the bullet. But not always. I absolutely guarantee that this year we cannot be taken for granted. This is a movement fed up with betrayals, and they've come one after the other.
Think back to 1988. Plenty of qualified conservatives -- Pete du Pont, Rep. Jack Kemp and Sen. Paul Laxalt, Pat Robertson (for evangelicals, anyway) -- were prepared to succeed President Ronald Reagan, but the GOP establishment, along with the professional political class, rallied around Vice President George H.W. Bush, an unthinkable proposition for conservatives just eight years earlier. After a listless campaign start, Bush finally energized the conservative base with his "No new taxes!" pledge at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. We carried him to victory that November.
Within two years, he'd broken his promise and delivered one of the largest tax increases in history. His 1991 nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, which pleased conservatives, had been preemptively neutralized by his selection of the liberal David H. Souter in 1990. After brilliantly executing the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he squandered a 91 percent approval rating. He did nothing to advance the conservative cause. He did not cut taxes. He did not rein in federal spending and regulation. He did nothing for social and cultural issues.
By 1992, we who had dined at the table of Ronald Reagan had been banished to the GOP kitchen. As the National Review editorialized at the time, establishment Republicans "took conservative support for granted, reasoning from the dogma of the two-party system that disaffected conservatives had 'nowhere else to go.' " They were wrong. Some of us turned to Pat Buchanan, who disrupted the primary season. Others turned to independent candidate H. Ross Perot, who led the field until he imploded. Still others simply stayed home, and that November, Bush was soundly defeated by Bill Clinton.
Two years later, the "Contract With America" reversed the GOP's fortunes. With a reignited conservative base, Republicans captured both houses of Congress. But in the face of a liberal counterattack led by the national news media -- Time magazine's cover on Dec. 19, 1994, portrayed a snarling Newt Gingrich as Uncle Scrooge, and the cover of Newsweek's year-end double issue depicted a Dr. Seuss-esque cartoon of the House speaker smiling devilishly beside the headline "How the Gingrich Stole Christmas" -- Republican resistance crumbled. The Contract was abandoned, and overnight the Gingrich revolution was finished. We watched Republican "leaders" flee into the tall grass, whence they've never emerged.
In 1996, a new crop of conservative leaders presented themselves as presidential candidates, but again the party establishment would have none of Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Phil Gramm or Dan Quayle. Instead, they pooled their resources behind Dole, who offered nothing to energize the conservative base while the professional class confidently clucked that conservatives had "nowhere else to go." Again we stayed home. There was no enthusiasm for volunteer action. Again the moderate candidate was routed.