OK. Let’s put the conservative principles aside for a moment. Let’s just focus on winning.
Our friends over at National Review, who pushed hard for Romney, have issued a call for truce in the battle between conservatives and McCain supporters. Fair enough. They are probably right that the best solution here is to let McCain be McCain and conservatives be conservatives, joining hands when in agreement and going our separate ways when not. Rush Limbaugh has given an interview to Time magazine’s Jay Carney in which he essentially suggests the first. Surely he is correct in saying the worst possible thing McCain could do is pander.
Unfortunately, the Republican Party has been in this place before. Seven times before, to be specific. Long before Rush, long before talk radio. The results have been uniformly bad.
The core problem is this notion of “reaching out” (as McCain likes to say) to Democrats and Independents. This is code for saying “hey…I’m really not a bad guy. Yes, I’m a conservative/Republican, but really, I’m not a right-wing wacko. Take a look at my positions on issues X,Y or Z.” This is nothing new. It has in fact been gospel with so-called “moderate” Republicans since at least the days of FDR. The problem, principles aside, is that it doesn’t work at the presidential level. It is, in its own fashion, a pander to the left. It turns the nominee of the day into a sort of political Rodney King asking — pleading — “can’t we all get along?”
Politically speaking, the answer should always be “no.” Preferably, “hell no!” And it should be the job of the nominee to say why. But this seems to relentlessly escape Republicans running for president as moderates, who have made it their declared purpose to “reach out” to the other side.
A GREAT PLACE TO CAPTURE the flavor behind the McCain approach is the first Kennedy-Nixon debate of the 1960 presidential campaign. You might call it Exhibit A in how Republicans, with the unerring instinct of political lemmings, lose the presidency by playing the moderate.
The setting: the very first televised presidential debate in American history. The candidates: Massachusetts Senator and Democrat John F. Kennedy, 43, and Vice President Richard Nixon, Republican, 47. Both young, the first of what we now call “the Greatest Generation,” who had emerged as presidential nominees, the two dueling for the right to succeed the grandfatherly hero-general Dwight Eisenhower.
It’s ancient history now, recalled if at all by political science professors to teach students the importance of looking good on TV. The legend always plays out as the tanned and fit but underdog JFK, immaculate in a dark suit, well made up, dueling the front-running yet unfortunate Richard Nixon. He of the bad television makeup, the one with the pale face and five o’clock shadow, the guy in the gray suit and too-big shirt collar. Never to be forgotten were the Nixonian sweaty, eye-darting glances. JFK, so history records, won the day, launching the myth of JFK and what would become Camelot. This legend is so ingrained that it has erased almost entirely the memory of exactly what Richard Nixon was communicating that night in what became a televised political classic. And kept right on communicating throughout the entire 1960 campaign. His approach was such a searing disaster that Nixon himself would never again use it in his later, successful second and third campaigns for the White House in 1968 and 1972. What did he say in 1960? More to the point, why did he say it? And what were the results?
The debate was held on September 26, with both candidates in the same Chicago studio.
JFK won the right to make the opening statement. After listening to Kennedy make his ideological pitch, when it was his turn, Nixon looked into the camera and set the tone for his campaign by saying this right off the bat:
“The things that Senator Kennedy has said, many of us can agree with.”
This is the 1960-version of McCain-speak. Translation? “Hey, I’m not one of those conservative wing nuts, no matter what they say. I’m every bit as reasonable as JFK. Honest. We have a lot in common. Really. Please believe me. Please.”
It was downhill from there. Going back through his remarks that evening in what would be the most-watched of the four debates, we see Nixon time and again go out of his way to imply that he has almost no disagreement with the underlying premise of Kennedy’s positions, that more government is indeed at least OK government if not better government. Hence lines like these from Nixon are salted throughout the entire debate:p>* “Here again, may I indicate that Senator Kennedy and I are not in disagreement…” br> * “We both want to help…”
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