I've written before about the desperate attempt by many in the Republican party to save the conservative brand. I'm interested in this again because of the recent Bush move to embrace John McCain, perhaps as repayment for the one McCain gave him in 2004.
You remember. This one:
It's been clear for some time that McCain has been winning delegates by appealing to everyone but the self-described conservatives--they were going to equal parts Romney and Huckabee, and yesterday, they gave the Huckster a dominating win in Kansas, a close one in Louisiana, and have him neck and neck in Washington (which gave Ron Paul his best showing yet, in terms of percentage of the vote--21%).
When I ask these conservatives why they dislike McCain so much, they generally respond in one of two ways. The less literate simply claim that he's a liberal democrat in disguise--those people are easy to ignore, because to them, any candidate short of Attila the Hun mixed with the ghost of Milton Friedman is a liberal democrat. They're insane.
The more literate point to his immigration policy and the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill as proof of his lack of conservatism. McCain's immigration policy is bad--just not in the way that McCain's haters think it is, but the flip side is that their hatred of him has caused McCain to toughen his stance, thereby pushing the growing Latino vote ever more into the arms of the Democrats. Hard for me to object too strenuously, especially since his change of attitude still hasn't won him any friends.
So how does Bush come into this? Well, among the people who still consider themselves movement conservatives, there seem to be two groups--the evangelicals, who are Huckabee's people, and the small-government, low tax, Grover Norquist types, who were kinds sorta for Romney or Thompson or Giuliani or even Paul but who still hold McCain's vote against the Bush tax cuts against him (another thing McCain has tried to change his tune on--I thought he was the Straight Talker?). The evangelicals I talk to still like Bush--they think he's a godly man who's done a great job protecting us from the heathen Islamofascists. "No attacks since 9/11" is their mantra, and while they seem to be firmly in Huckabee's bag, Bush's great strength as a politician has always been going at an opponent's base. Maybe he's hoping to do this for McCain.
But in the piece I linked to above, Bush's message is directed at the other group--the group that has vituperative hatred for McCain, the Limbaugh-Coulter faction. (Imagine those two spawning. No, don't. I'm sorry.)
John McCain is a "true conservative," President Bush says, although the presumptive Republican presidential nominee may have to work harder to convince other conservatives that he is one of their own.This is a case of trying to reclaim the brand, so far as I can tell. He's saying "I am the face of conservatism, not Limbaugh, and you'd better recognize," and that McCain is the next guy, not the preacher and not the psychotic obstetrician.
McCain "is very strong on national defense," Bush said in an interview taped for airing on "Fox News Sunday." "He is tough fiscally. He believes the tax cuts ought to be permanent. He is pro-life. His principles are sound and solid as far as I'm concerned."
In the end, I suspect that the Huckabee conservatives will line up behind McCain, no matter what Dobson says. They'll look at the Democratic options and conclude, in their own twisted little heads, that a flawed McCain is better than an anti-christ-like Clinton or Obama.
The Romney/Giuliani/Thompson conservatives may look at it a little longer, and try to figure out if they can get some cash out of a Clinton or Obama presidency. They're the most likely group to switch over, if only for an election.
The Paul conservatives are the most likely to either sit this one out or write in a vote. They might even look at supporting third party candidates. I don't see Paul openly endorsing McCain, nor do I see McCain openly seeking that endorsement. They're like the Nader voters in 2000--they don't see a difference between McCain and Clinton/Obama, which is silly, but there it is. According to Paul, they won't have the Nader choice--he's not mounting a third party campaign--but don't expect most of these people to sit meekly by and cheer on McCain. They consider themselves revolutionaries, and even though most revolutions are crushed mercilessly, that rarely stems their optimism. (The arguments that Paul could win a brokered convention are just precious.)
And then there's this question: why does McCain even give a crap what Bush of the 23% approval rating cares about him or his conservatism? Because the only people left who like Bush are the ones voting in the primaries. Come July, Bush will be shoved under a rock and told to keep quiet. Whether or not he does that will remain to be seen. I doubt he will.