John McCain's win in Florida makes him the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination. With support from Rudy Giuliani and an increasing number of other GOP stalwarts -- the endorsements of Governor Charlie Crist and Senator Mel Martinez proved crucial in Florida according to exit polls -- McCain figures to do extremely well in Eastern winner-take-all states next Super Tuesday, and in California's district-by-district primary.
Mike Huckabee has not broadened his appeal beyond Evangelicals, but the loyalty of that core constituency will continue to drain conservative votes from Mitt Romney. McCain, written off after last spring's immigration debacle (which did not hurt him among Florida Hispanics - quite the opposite), is also regaining the aura of being the most electable Republican in a field suddenly depleted of high profile alternatives like Fred Thompson and America's Mayor.
Yet McCain lost to Romney in Florida by two to one among Republicans who described themselves as very conservative. And the man called "the maverick" has not sealed the deal with millions of Republicans who agree with Rush Limbaugh and most other conservative talk show hosts. This wing of the party cannot be ignored if Republicans hope to win by following the Karl Rove strategy of turning out the base in overwhelming numbers - including conservatives in Southwest Ohio. A different strategy of counting on moderates and independents could prove fatal to Republicans, since many who speak well of McCain (including his fans in the mainstream media) may well vote in the general election for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, or for a third party candidate like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg should he choose to run. So let's explore why McCain riles so much of the Republican base.
Even his harshest critics concede that John McCain is the only hero running for President. His refusal to abandon comrades at the Hanoi Hilton is a stirring page in American history, and presaged the courage it took to continue supporting the Iraq war when nothing seemed to be going right. Indeed, as he retorted to Giuliani at their South Carolina debate, McCain did not just support a troop surge after the fact; the Arizona senator demanded a greater commitment while Democrats and even some Republicans sought surrender.
That cantankerous courage is one reason McCain has been called a maverick. It is a description that appeals to the would-be hero in all of us.
But it's risky to focus on personality to the exclusion of policy. True, character often trumps agendas. Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush never thought they'd be war leaders. War revealed a strain of idealism in both men that critics found misguided, or worse. Voters can't predict events that may shape presidencies, so it's important to consider character when sizing up candidates.
Still, policy positions are important too. Senator Obama, for instance, is an inspirational orator of a new generation who promises to effect change while bringing Americans together. But since one change he's proposing is a speedy withdrawal from Iraq, it's hard to see how he can bring along those who believe the surge is leading us toward victory.
With McCain, the chief stumbling blocks for conservative critics are on the home front. McCain now says he opposed the Bush tax cuts because they were not coupled with spending cuts. Fiscal conservatives also oppose out-of-control earmarks and entitlements but, they ask, what does that have to do with tax cuts?
As those conservatives see it, flattening income tax rates generates revenue. Ronald Reagan believed this and so did John F. Kennedy. Their far more dramatic across-the-board cuts, as well as those of George W. Bush, increased economic activity, stimulated growth and flooded the treasury with tax revenue. While fiscal conservatives join McCain in calling for less spending as well as lower taxes, they do not believe one is needed to justify the other.
But beyond demanding spending restraints as a condition of cutting taxes, Senator McCain had another reason for opposing across the board cuts, one that he explained to me personally in 2000 when he let local reporters climb aboard his Straight Talk Express. (This, by the way, was quite unusual and much appreciated. By contrast, Senator Clinton rarely talks with national reporters.) McCain told me, "The rich don't need tax cuts." Putting aside the question of who is rich (and the fact that truly rich people often shelter their income with tax-free instruments) McCain's critics say his attitude justifies a wholesale redistribution of income. In any event, they note that since the Bush rate reductions took effect, upper income taxpayers have paid a greater percentage of the total tax burden - because increased economic activity increased their income. And they deny that raising upper income rates would put any more money into the pockets of people who earn less, except in the form of transfer payments that force capital and jobs to move elsewhere.
What would fiscal conservatives do to increase everyone's incomes? Cut everyone's taxes even more! Liberals derisively brand this "trickle down" economics, but conservatives insist it works.
The Bush across the board tax cuts are set to expire in 2010. Senator McCain now says he would support extending them. But what does his earlier opposition say about his basic world view?
Couple that opposition with the McCain-Feingold restrictions on political advertising before elections - which critics call a clear violation of the First Amendment -- and McCain's sponsorship of the comprehensive immigration bill that critics insist amounted to amnesty without any guarantee of border enforcement (McCain now calls for securing the border first) -- and what much of the conservative establishment says you're left with is a hero and a maverick but hardly a conservative.
However, having said all this, the question for conservatives is: Who is more to their taste -- and more electable?