The snowballing anger among conservative opinion leaders toward John McCain — an anger that is not mirrored among Republican rank-and-file, whose approval-disapproval rating for McCain is 72-19, according to the Pew Poll, fifteen points higher than Mitt Romney’s in both categories — suggests they are confusing ideological convictions with political tactics, and infusing a disagreement on how to approach problems with a moral edge it does not deserve.
Whatever John McCain is, he is not a liberal. But he disappoints conservatives because, astonishingly enough, he lacks the Right’s partisan combativeness — which seems surprising, given his background as a warrior and his stiff-necked heroism in staring down his North Vietnamese torturer-jailers. He may be a military man through and through, but he is not a team player, to put it mildly. In partisan terms, he often seems determined not to march in lockstep simply because others expect it of him. That’s why, among other things, he has been so wildly incompetent at using his own perfect pro-life record iin the House and Senate to his own benefit in seeking support from Republicans who share his anti-abortion views. Such a thing would require him to fall in line, and McCain does not fall in line.
These are not words of praise, merely of description. The truth is that this flinty individualism has a profoundly self-destructive aspect to it. He has made his own pathway to the top of his party extremely difficult because he does not wish to play the game the way it needs to be played. He offends people he need not offend, and acts in ways that are considered disrespectful by people who only need him to show them a little kavod. If he becomes the nominee of the GOP, he will be required to mend fences he need not have broken down in the first place.
But his opponents are engaging in a terrible mistake as well. McCain likes to make common cause with politicians across the aisle from him. They can’t stand this. They prefer someone who fights Democrats to someone who makes deals with Democrats. Fair enough. But this is a difference of degree, not of essence. McCain is a deal-maker. Perhaps, having engaged with a real enemy who broke his arms and tortured him and sought to destroy him body and mind and soul, he doesn’t see an enemy when he sees a Democrat but rather just another American whose ideas on many things differ from his but with whom he might share some common ground.
McCain would, there is no question, be a lousy leader of an ideological movement. But the Republican party is not an ideological movement. It is a political vehicle for the American right-of-center. Those who confuse the Republican party with the conservative movement are indulging in a fantasy — that there is purity in politics and that there is something immoral about ideological impurity.