Sean Hannity is right. But why?
To borrow from a once famous phrase about the economy, "it's the principles, stupid."
The American conservative movement, refreshed from its annual festival of intellectual and political lights known as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), is experiencing yet another transformational moment of growth. It is important, it is dynamic, and it is most certainly unstoppable.
As with its incubation in pre-Goldwater days, followed by its growth and blossoming in the 1970s, 1980s and again in the early 1990s takeover of Congress, the conservative army is ready to move forward yet again, this time expanding even further into every corner of American life
The political question at hand is also a simple one: Can the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain -- and the inevitable political bureaucracy that has begun surrounding him -- understand the next, transformational phase that is mushrooming in an energized American conservative movement? Can they find a role for McCain in that movement? Or will they reduce McCain's relationship with conservatives to a single CPAC speech and a series of surrogate assaults on Hannity and his fellow talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham -- and by extension the millions of conservatives who listen to them? More to the point, if the attacks are beginning with radio talk show hosts, which conservatives are next in line for this kind of treatment?
Anyone who spent time at CPAC this past week, as I did, could not possibly miss the energy, passion, and intellectual volcano that is the American conservative movement. While media attention was understandably focused on McCain's Thursday appearance, the real story of the next stage of American conservatism was with the attendees themselves. They were the physical embodiment of Hannity's point, the real leaders of the conservative future.
Stopping to chat with both exhibitors and attendees I found filmmakers, Internet activists, policy wonks, software experts, educators, book publishers, attorneys, journalists, authors, diplomats, advertising marketers, fundraisers, clergy, students and seniors, to name but a few. Enthusiastically promoting conservative projects reflecting their specific interests, they were the very definition of intellectual vitality and political awareness. In one corner of the hall there were tables groaning under the weight of hundreds of books written by, for, or about conservatives, many of them -- don't you love it? -- New York Times bestsellers.
Most of these people are not as well known as Sean Hannity or his talk radio colleagues. But make no mistake, in terms of their passion and commitment to conservative principles they are one and the same. To understand the potential represented by all of these people as they enthusiastically walked me through their projects is to know with assurance that conservatism in America is moving forward yet again, on the edge of a vibrant transformation into a serious 21st century political and cultural force.
AFTER SEEING ALL OF THIS ACTIVITY and spending considerable time over two days talking with many of these people, people who came from all over the country, it is passing curious that there seems to be some sort of effort under way by some McCain supporters to lash out at Hannity and others, unaware that precisely the kind of people I spoke with at CPAC both listen to talk radio and consider themselves more than capable of making their own decisions about both McCain and the conservative movement.
Particularly appalling was the recent column in the February 9th edition of the Wall Street Journal by Robert "Bud" McFarlane, President Reagan's national security adviser. As with some others supporting Senator McCain, McFarlane makes his case for McCain in a positive fashion -- up to a point. Inexplicably he then wheels around and attacks the talk radio folks as using "extremist rhetoric" that will "cost" the Republican Party.
This is astounding language to hear from someone who worked for Ronald Reagan. Surely McFarlane is aware that this is the kind of language that was used repeatedly by Reagan's political enemies to describe Reagan himself. There seems to be not the slightest awareness that by implication he is invoking McCain's name to condescendingly communicate to the millions of conservatives who are in the talk radio audience that McCain and his campaign view the very people he needs to get elected -- the kind of people I spoke with at CPAC -- as nothing more than extremist nuts. The possibility that both the talk radio hosts and their listeners are seriously dedicated to conservative principles no matter who sits at the top of a presidential ticket -- or even in the White House itself -- apparently escapes McFarlane.
McFarlane, who as far as I could see was nowhere in evidence at CPAC, should perhaps have shown up and taken the time, as I did, to listen to the conservatives who were there. Particularly instructive was speaking to a number of young people waiting in a line to hear commentator Ann Coulter. First of all, the line itself was amazing. A mainstream Washington journalist I was speaking to at one point was truly stunned to see this very long line snaking up from the lower conference room level of the Shoreham hotel, along an entire corridor, then crossing the hotel lobby before extending the length of yet another corridor -- all filled with Ann Coulter fans. But McFarlane would have profited by simply taking some time to listen to what these Coulterites had to say. Quite a number of them, with Coulter buttons pinned to lapels and blouses, volunteered that they didn't agree with their heroine that it would be better to vote for Hillary over McCain. What they also made clear was that they loved Ann Coulter and respected her for her clarity as a champion of conservative principles, reserving the right to disagree with her as they reserved the right to disagree with McCain.
In other words, a group of brainwashed robots this was not. They do indeed listen to Coulter and to Rush, Hannity, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham. But they are perfectly capable of making up their own mind, thank you very much, and what they all agreed on is a dedication to principle. They love listening to all of these well-known conservatives, they admire them and they read their books because they know that they are being treated as serious citizens who share with these celebrated conservatives precisely the same devotion to conservative principle.
IT IS, I MUST ADMIT, somewhat discomfiting to find myself criticizing friends in print. I know some of the signatories to the recent public letter signed by several longtime Reaganites, and in fact worked for two of them. All the signers are great people who have deservedly won high praise in their careers. Yet with all due respect, how long and how well they knew Ronald Reagan is, at this juncture, quite beside the point. To sign on to a letter that tries to compare Reagan-as-maverick to McCain-as-maverick not only misses the mark, it ignores the obvious. If Reagan was a maverick -- and I personally believe he was about conservative principle, not about being a maverick -- he was a conservative maverick. He approached the 1976 campaign against the incumbent President Ford by running where he in fact was -- to Ford's right. McCain spent both the 2000 primary season against then-Governor Bush and notable parts of his Senate career championing causes not of the right but of the left.
This is why some -- but by no means all -- of the people I spoke with at CPAC have such hostility to McCain. Had he spent his time in the Senate taking the same conservative philosophical approach to immigration, the First Amendment, the Bush tax cut and global warming as he did to earmarks and the military surge in Iraq he would be receiving hosannas from conservatives. He chose to do otherwise, and thus the problem.
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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