Political Hay

The Elephant in the Big Tent

How different is McCain from the last three Republican nominees?

By 2.6.08

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Having accepted the concept of the "Big Tent" a long time ago, the GOP can't excommunicate anyone from the party. It was a dumb idea and the GOP has paid the price for it in endless philosophical drift and inept presidential nominees. John McCain differs in degree, not kind, from the last three GOP presidential candidates.

Bush Sr., Dole, Bush Jr., McCain: Where's the substantive difference? They are all intellectually lame Republicans, with little to no interest in conservative political and moral philosophy.

An electorate fed a diet of Big Tent gruel and PC platitudes for well over a decade was bound to settle on McCain. While the Dems had the good sense to insist on litmus tests -- which is why they never get saddled with philosophically irregular liberal nominees -- the Republicans threw open the doors to the Schwarzeneggers, chipping away at their platform with each passing year.

Will the folly of a McCain candidacy bring the Big Tent crashing down? One certainly hopes so, but it is not likely to happen, if only because many of his critics are proponents of "inclusive" conservatism.

What makes the back-and-forth about McCain so boring and depressing is that at bottom it represents nothing more than a clash of personalities, not principles. One group of PC power-seekers jostling with another, trading hastily-cobbled-together opportunistic charges. How fascinating. What new morsel of wisdom will drop from the lips of Sean Hannity?

SOME OF McCAIN'S critics were prepared to accept as the nominee Rudy Giuliani, the most pro-abortion, pro-homosexual rights Republican to run for the presidency ever. If heterodoxy on those fundamental issues is not a non-starter, how can any of McCain's inane positions be? (Also, notice that embryonic stem-cell research, an issue on which McCain is egregiously wrong, generates the least frothing amongst the establishment conservatives who oppose him.)

Moreover, it looked ludicrous for critics to subject McCain's record to a close and anguished reading while touting a Northeastern moderate Republican who voted for Paul Tsongas, trotted off to Planned Parenthood events, and imposed compulsory health insurance on his state.

McCain is exactly what a GOP that treats the natural moral law as negotiable deserves. The natural law is the philosophical core of conservatism. Any party that abandons or downplays it becomes just another species of liberalism. Most "conservative" positions today are little more than the liberal positions of yesteryear, from Bill Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy to No Child Left Behind -- a PC conservatism that Mitt Romney and McCain perfectly embody.

It tells you a lot about the state of the establishment conservative movement that in the end, given a choice between a (basically) red-meat conservative from the South and a recently pro-abortion moderate from the North, it chose the latter. The savaging of Mike Huckabee has been highly revealing, betraying more than just personal distaste.

Amongst not all but many of his critics, there is at work a basic contempt for natural law conservatism, which came out most vividly in the sputtering over Huckabee's references to amending the Constitution in accordance with "God's standards."

As the good Enlightenment liberals they have become, some modern American conservatives are naturally horrified by such a statement: How dare that hick suggest touching a venerable man-made document (never mind that the founders, being deeper and more thoughtful about these matters, put an amendment power in their Constitution for the people to govern themselves according to God's standards).

HUCKABEE, FOR ALL of his glibness, is striking much closer to the bedrock of philosophical conservatism than his critics. If conservatism is not about conserving principles that originate in reality -- a reality that comes from God and is made known to man through his reason -- then what good is it?

A conservatism without the natural law is simply willful liberalism in a more respectable guise, moving more glacially than the left's transparent one, but essentially agreeing that man is the measure of all things and political disputes, no matter how obviously they bear upon the God-given nature of man, are to be resolved by power and man's desires.

Both reason and bitter history should tell conservatives that sawing off the natural law leg of its stool makes the whole thing collapse. Without principles rooted in reality upon which to deliberate about the size of government proper to human beings, economic conservatism evaporates and foreign-policy conservatism turns hubristic.

If McCain isn't sitting on a three-legged stool, that's because GOP activists threw it away a long time ago. They set up in its place a Big Tent and McCain crawled into it. Their whining is a generation too late.

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author, with Phyllis Schlafly, of the new book, No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.