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The “McCain problem” is not talk radio. Listening Thursday evening as I drove through Washington after day one of CPAC I tuned into Mark Levin’s show. In paint-peeling language, Levin, a former Reagan-era colleague, ran through McCain’s problems in terms of his record. What else should Levin be doing? Anyone who has ever crossed paths with him — and I have — knows Mark Levin to be one very, very smart guy. He is nothing if not devoted to principle, and in fact has spent a considerable part of his life living for the conservative cause. It simply is not his job as a talk show host to elect McCain or anyone else president. He has made it his job — his life — to talk and write and fight for conservative principles. What amazes with the McFarlane criticism is the notion that if Levin — or Hannity or Rush or Laura — would somehow just shut up, McCain’s problem would somehow go away.
Some Straight Talk here. If talk radio fell mute this minute, McCain’s problem would still exist.
A case in point appeared the very next day at CPAC itself. Floating around the hotel the day after Levin’s latest scorching was the new issue of the National Journal, a decidedly mainstream media publication that is most assuredly not a journal of conservatism. The cover article featured a story about McCain by Kirk Victor, the Journal’s longtime Senate reporter. Victor’s story was titled “The Right Stuff?” Notice the question mark. In the quiet language of traditional Capitol Hill print journalism, Victor was saying almost exactly what Levin was saying in his more flamboyant, talk radio fashion. It pointedly referred to McCain’s “put-up-your-dukes” demeanor, and even more troubling for McCain’s relationship with conservatives, produced a chart tracking the Arizonan’s conservative ranking in the Senate since his arrival in 1987.
According to Victor’s story, McCain’s best year as a conservative came in 1994, when he was ranked the 8th most conservative among all Senators. By 2004, he had fallen to 49th, with rankings of 45 and 46 respectively for 2005 and 2006. No ranking was available for 2007. The 2004 ranking, Victor says, tied McCain with the GOP’s famously liberal Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, with only two liberal Republicans further to the left, Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee. Chafee, of course, faced a primary challenge from a conservative in 2006 and then lost to a Democrat in the fall. He has now announced that he is leaving the Republican Party.
Conservatives across America clearly have some sort of sense of McCain that corresponds with the essence of Victor’s story, even if they have not seen it — and with the Internet being what it is doubtless it is already everywhere. In other words, the problem for McCain is not talk radio hosts anymore than it is mainstream reporters covering the Senate. The problem is McCain’s record.
HOW DOES HE MOVE FORWARD at this point? Putting a halt to surrogates attacking conservatives would surely be a start. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton, no shrinking conservative violet, spoke to the CPAC audience the day after McCain. He outlined his past differences with McCain, then simply said the country was at war, related McCain’s support of his UN nomination, and endorsed McCain as the best candidate to be commander-in-chief. He said not a negative word criticizing his fellow conservatives. Zero.
There is perhaps a second way for McCain to reach out to the men and women who fill the conservative ranks. He is in fact a sitting U.S. Senator, albeit in the minority party. There is nothing that stops him from introducing a McCain conservative program bill by bill on the Senate floor. Surely most if not all of it would not pass. Senate Democrats would see to that. But it would give conservatives a very clear, very sharp look at exactly what a McCain presidency would look like. Yes, it runs the “risk” of not appearing to “reach out” to Independents and Democrats. Sure, the mainstream media would be all over him — as if they won’t be anyway. But if McCain’s campaign wishes to really do something Reaganesque he could use his Senate position not as a forum to “reach out” but rather to bring Independents and Democrats into the conservative cause as conservatives, not as liberals who want a second liberal party. If he did that, the listeners of talk radio, and a lot of other conservatives, could well start paying favorable attention at last to John McCain.
As I walked around CPAC talking to people, video camera in hand, I came across one young woman whose comments should, one would think, cause the McCain campaign to rethink the idea of having surrogates attack talk radio. While I have her name, as promised with all the CPAC’ers I taped — she is identified as simply a CPAC attendee. As you can see at this link, this conservative woman is both young and well informed.
Asked to comment on anything she wanted to discuss, at first she shyly demurred. After watching a friend make a comment, she changed her mind. She did indeed have something she wanted to say on camera. Looking the lens square in the eye she said this:
“Who would I trust? Rush Limbaugh or John McCain? I would say John McCain is endorsed by the New York Times. Think about that one.”
The entire conservative movement is not only doing just that, they are, as I saw firsthand, thinking about the conservative future. Many of them would like to move into that future with Senator McCain. His reception, as I observed it first hand, was surely evidence of that. They respect him as a genuine American hero, and they are very, very concerned about the war. But whether they were McCain supporters or not, they made something else very plain.
One and all, they are working, working passionately, to lift the conservative movement forward to its next stage. To transform and energize it yet again, creating a 21st-century future based on conservative principles just as Ronald Reagan re-created the late 20th century based on those same principles. They will do it with John McCain — or without him. But one way or another, they understand that all of this isn’t about McCain or about talk radio.
It’s about the principles, stupid.
Think about that one.
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