Political Hay

A Conservative Team of Rivals

Would McCain model Lincoln in reaching out to CPAC conservatives?

By 2.4.08

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An adviser to front-running Arizona Senator John McCain says McCain, notoriously plain spoken, needs to "acknowledge tension" with conservatives in his upcoming appearance before the Conservative Political Action Committee's 6,000 delegates this week in Washington.

"Put it up front," says this adviser of the McCain CPAC appearance. McCain simply "doesn't agree" with conservatives on everything, yet feels strongly that he, like a number of those in his audience, was a "foot soldier" in the Reagan Revolution and is indeed a conservative. In fact, it is exactly this side of McCain -- the long opposition to government spending as well as the militant support for the hawkish side of national security issues like the Iraq War surge plus his consistent pro-life support and a pledge on the appointment of conservative judges that won him the endorsement of the longtime-conservative Manchester Union Leader in the run-up to McCain's New Hampshire victory.

This McCain adviser also pointed out that Ronald Reagan's relationship with conservatives at times had rocky patches, notably over the nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. A meeting with then-White House political director Lyn Nofziger was recalled in which unhappy conservative leaders were briefed on O'Connor. Afterwards there was to be a photo op on the White House grounds, a moment Nofziger deputy Lee Atwater was instantly warned would backfire. Atwater was told that conservatives were so unhappy with Reagan over the O'Connor nomination they would not hesitate to say so if asked by the press -- even on the White House lawn. The photo op was canceled.

While there is a point to all of this, and in fact there were other moments in the 1980s when conservatives were gritting their teeth about Reagan, the questions conservatives are asking themselves is how to deal with the prospect of a President McCain -- assuming the Arizonan does indeed wind up victorious in his drive for the nomination and carries the day over either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

As McCain prepares to address conservatives, there is one possibility that may help both sides. The idea is modeled around a similar approach to Republican critics taken by a newly elected Abraham Lincoln. The approach was the topic of the recent bestselling book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals. Lincoln, who began 1860 as a little-known ex-Illinois Congressman and ended the year president-elect by defeating three much-better known and powerful rivals, made the remarkable decision to bring all of his major GOP rivals into his Cabinet.

Thus New York Senator William Seward, the once-presumed sure-bet for the nomination, along with the imperious Ohio Senator Salmon Chase, and Missouri's sturdy Judge Edward Bates came into the Lincoln tent successively as Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and Attorney General. While he was never a presidential rival, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton entered the Cabinet no fan of Lincoln's. None of them shy, all of the ex-presidential candidates thinking they would make a better president than Lincoln, each in turn wound up contributing to the political sturdiness if not the outright brilliance of the Lincoln Administration. Lincoln revealed himself as someone who both knew his own mind yet had no fear of surrounding himself with strong men who had very different backgrounds and beliefs. By the time of his assassination in 1865, each man had become an unabashed admirer of their leader.

COULD McCAIN PULL SOMETHING like this off were he to be nominated? Is he capable of putting together a 2008 version of Lincoln's model that could be labeled as a Conservative Team of Rivals? Would he in fact make room for major rivals Romney (whom McCain is rumored to dislike), Huckabee, Thompson, and his friend Rudy Giuliani -- and perhaps even the rival who wasn't, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- in the top tiers of his Cabinet and White House staff? This type of approach could answer the complaint of conservatives that no one GOP candidate in 2008 approached the total package that was Ronald Reagan.

To give Romney a voice in economics, Huckabee with social issues, Giuliani and Thompson on security issues, with Gingrich riding herd as a Cabinet-level Counselor to the President (much in the fashion of Reagan aide Ed Meese, who filled such a role before becoming Attorney General) is an approach that could electrify conservatives as well as sharply define McCain's differences -- and conservative's differences -- with a potential Clinton-Obama ticket. Can you imagine the reaction of American conservatives (not to mention the White House press corps!) if a President McCain appointed as his new press secretary -- Sean Hannity? All of this would give a McCain Administration the same kind of collective intellectual and political firepower the same idea gave Lincoln's.

Certainly this concept, as it did with Lincoln, would make for an at times tempestuous administration. Lincoln's rivals not only fought with Lincoln, they conspired against each other. McCain's temper is well known, and the idea that he would have the ability to, as Kearns wrote of Lincoln, "transcend jealous rivals" by alternately giving them room to ride while simultaneously reining them in and asserting himself is a question mark. Yet it is unmistakably the mark of precisely what is at the heart of McCain's campaign and what indeed McCain himself claims to possess -- the ability to be a leader. To sit patiently -- or even impatiently -- in the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room while Newt Gingrich goes on with the latest Gingrichian analysis or Romney exudes about some job creating prospect or Huckabee on a pro-life initiative may in fact be more of a Lincolnian hallmark than McCain could bring himself to endure.

But whether or not McCain is up to the task of working with conservatives and leading the country further down the conservative highway, this still does not speak to the increasing concern of some conservatives about the fate of the conservative movement. It is a needless concern.

John McCain will be president. Or he won't. But either event will not shake conservative principles, which are timeless, the political equivalent of the law of gravity. Newton is dead. Gravity lives.

Changing the ways of the 71-year old McCain is a task for dreamers. Faced with a McCain presidency, conservatives will have as their task either to support him when they agree with him, and, taking a page from McCain's own book, vibrantly oppose him when they think he is wrong. Conservatives, as McCain himself points out, un-elected a Republican Congress in 2006 because it fell prey to Inside the Beltway spending habits. They should have no problem opposing a president they helped elect, something they did once before when they abandoned the first President Bush after he broke his pledge not to raise taxes. The power of conservative ideas to inspire, to motivate, to elect and to un-elect -- and most importantly to work -- is impervious to a McCain or any other politician.

THE WORLD HAS BEEN DELUGED recently with the tragic story of the death of the 28-year old actor Heath Ledger. Before this story vanishes in the media memory-hole, it is worth considering in terms of what real conservatism is all about. One of the most obvious tenets of conservatism is that, in the words of the conservative thinker Richard Weaver, ideas have consequences, the title of one of the groundbreaking works of the modern conservative movement. In short, Weaver pointed out that when men and women deny the reality of natural law, they will in one form or another, crash their ship on the rocks.

Mr. Ledger, by all media accounts, was a very smart, very intelligent and very talented young man. Yet it is now clear from the media that for all of his smarts and intelligence, the actor apparently chose a path (the use of drugs) that violated the quite obvious natural laws relevant to the use of the human body. What he may have done in terms of his drug use could well have been fashionable (the latest flurry over a video filmed of Ledger in the presence of someone snorting cocaine took place at the highly fashionable hotel Chateau Marmont), it may well have made him just one of the guys in some quarters of the young Hollywood set, but in the end his drug use simply did work. Nor could it have ever worked, because the human body (yes, even a movie star's) is fundamentally not designed to deal with an overdose or bad dose of drugs. Smart man though he was, Ledger repeatedly violated the most basic of conservative principles and is now, quite tragically for himself and his family, no longer among the living.

The argument conservatives have with Senator McCain (and also, for that matter, Governor Schwarzenegger) is that he has a disturbing habit of indulging in the political equivalent of Heath Ledger-like behavior. The notion, to take but one example, that the government not only can and should be in the business of regulating free speech, as is the objective of McCain-Feingold, is more than just a violation of the spirit behind the First Amendment. It is also a deliberate attempt to ignore the fact that regulating free speech is eventually something that does not work. Human beings -- in this case American human beings -- will find a way to express themselves in one form or another regardless of what laws Senator McCain writes. This has, of course, already happened with McCain-Feingold. No less than former Senator Fred Thompson, a McCain friend and one-time supporter of McCain-Feingold, acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal that the law has not only not worked as intended but is being riddled with loop holes. Of course McCain-Feingold hasn't worked, nor, if one understands conservative principles, could it ever. Just as Heath Ledger sought to take drugs and appeared convinced his body would somehow tolerate the abuse, Senator McCain has ledgered a curb on free speech onto the books -- and unsurprisingly the American body politic has rejected his attempt.

More recently Governor Schwarzenegger has experienced the same Ledger-like political experience. Having convinced himself that he could safely ignore free-market principles in favor of mandating universal health care, he crafted a plan that ran head long into the hard fact that even left-wing liberals in the California legislature realized government mandated health care would quickly prove the ruin of California's working poor. The law of conservative political gravity, which in terms of economics revolves around the free market, is not government mandates and tax hikes.

For conservatives to work themselves into a tizzy over a McCain nomination and a McCain presidency is to ascribe a fragility to conservative principles that simply does not, in fact, exist. Conservative principles will not only survive McCain, they will survive Hillary or Obama or anyone else for precisely the same reason. They are real. They are grounded in reality. They are the natural law as common sense. No president can overrule them, no actor can confound them.

WHICH BRINGS US BACK to the idea of a Conservative Team of Rivals. If in fact John McCain makes it to the White House, and for that matter if he in fact emerges as the nominee, his campaign and his presidency -- not to mention the country -- will be better grounded when there is a physical manifestation of conservative ideas sitting around the Straight Talk Express or the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room with nominee McCain or President McCain.

Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us that Lincoln was asked by Joseph Medill, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, why he had insisted on putting so many of his enemies and opponents in his Cabinet. Lincoln answered thusly: "We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services."

As John McCain prepares to speak to the foot soldiers of America's conservative movement this week, the example of Abraham Lincoln is surely one to consider. The challenge for McCain on a personal level is to demonstrate a Lincoln-like ability to be a "master among men." Can he be perfectly at ease not simply contesting others but being at the head of a conservative movement and a White House where others, in Lincoln's words "the very strongest men," are frequently contesting their chief on what they consider to be the vital issues of the day? It is no coincidence, either, that the revered Ronald Reagan is so well thought of as a president precisely because he exhibited a considerable ability along these lines.

As for conservatives, if in fact McCain emerges as the nominee -- or for that matter whether Romney or Huckabee manages to upset McCain and replace him as front-runner and putative next president -- holding steady to principle is surely the best course. Many battles lie ahead, beginning with the shaping of the 2008 Republican Platform. Will this be a conservative platform? Will it endorse McCain-Feingold, for example, or some form of amnesty on immigration? Will the McCain view on global warming prevail -- or the Bush view? And so on.

What some in the mainstream media seem not to understand is that conservatism is not about Rush Limbaugh's ego or ratings for Sean Hannity or appeasing conservative radio talkers Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham. Each of these people -- and the millions more who listen to them -- are seriously, passionately devoted to conservative principle. They react as they do to Senator McCain because they feel he has abandoned conservative principle -- or worse seems not to understand it.

John McCain will take the time this week to look thousands of conservative activists at CPAC in the eye and tell them he is a conservative. And why. He is being urged to "acknowledge tension" in their relationship. But whether McCain convinces his immediate conservative audience at CPAC or not, whether they or the millions of conservatives around the country vote for him or not is really not the point. Whether he has the Lincoln-like ability to put together a Conservative Team of Rivals is not the point either.

To be as up front with McCain as McCain will presumably be to his CPAC audience, the conservative point is that conservatism and conservatives will sail on with -- or without -- McCain in the White House. Conservatives can help him get there. They can help him once he's there. Or they could contribute to his defeat or simply make his stay in the White House as unhappy as they did for George H.W. Bush. But whether or not John McCain is about conservative principles, conservative principles are not about John McCain -- or anyone else.

They are about the most fundamental laws of life itself.

If you don't believe that, ask Heath Ledger.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.