As somebody who has occasionally taken positions at odds with a large majority of my fellow conservatives (see war, Iraq), far be it from me to deny somebody the right to go off the reservation from time to time and still be called a conservative. But most McCain critics, like most Huckabee critics, aren’t simply insisting their least favorite candidate isn’t a conservative. They are making a case based on McCain’s record on certain issues, no different than looking for Romney’s flip-flops or pointing out the flaws of Mitt Care. Ramesh Ponnuru, a McCain supporter, opens his National Review story on the Arizona senator by observing, “John McCain lost the fight for the Republican nomination in 2000 because he was too far left for his party. He’s moved farther left since, yet this time he could very well win.”
Excessive litmus tests could read virtually every conservative out of the movement at some point. William F. Buckley Jr. supported the Panama Canal Treaty. Barry Goldwater backed Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan in 1976; he was also pro-choice (so was Robert Nisbet). Reagan favored the Brady bill and the assault weapons ban. All the top-tier Republican presidential candidates endorsed, and President Bush signed, McCain-Feingold. And so on. But that doesn’t mean certain positions aren’t consensus conservative positions — otherwise the term conservative would have no political meaning — or that conservative priorities don’t change over time.
Goldwater voted against the Kennedy tax cuts in the early 1960s, but support for lower marginal tax rates is clearly a conservative priority today. Pat Buchanan supported the 1986 amnesty. While some conservatives in good standing still favor that approach, that is not where the consensus on the right is in 2008.
Sure, these intellectual debates about conservatism aren’t what electoral politics are all about. But they may have a longer term impact than whether Republican primary voters pick McCain or one of his opponents.
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