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The McCain Divide

Posted on Jan 31, 2008

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

    WASHINGTON—If John McCain secures the Republican presidential nomination, his victory would signal a revolution in American politics—a divorce, after a 28-year marriage, between the Republican and conservative establishments.

    McCain would be the first Republican nominee since Gerald Ford in 1976 to win despite opposition from organized conservatism, and also the first whose base in Republican primaries rested on the party’s center and its dwindling left. McCain is winning despite conservatives, not because of them.

    Those who built the American right, from Barry Goldwater in 1964 through the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions, are intensely aware of the dangers a McCain victory portends. Some on the right feel it would be less damaging to their cause to lose the 2008 election with the Republican-conservative alliance intact than to win with John McCain.

    For those outside the conservative movement, such anxiety seems strange. McCain’s voting record in the House and Senate has typically won high ratings from conservative groups. His positions on key issues (support for the Iraq war, opposition to abortion, his long-standing criticism of government spending) are those of an orthodox, conservative loyalist.

    If McCain is the nominee, Democrats will have plenty of ammunition to persuade middle-of-the-road voters that he is not a moderate. And in Wednesday’s California debate, McCain repeated his oft-declared claim that he had been a “foot soldier” in Ronald Reagan’s army.


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    But staunch conservatives see things differently. They know that in primary after primary, McCain’s base has been formed by moderates, liberals, independents, supporters of abortion rights and critics of President Bush. Conservatives—who mistrust McCain because of his history on taxes, immigration, global warming and campaign finance reform—were not his coalition’s driving force. And Republicans who describe themselves as “very conservative” have consistently rejected McCain. In this week’s Florida primary, such voters backed Mitt Romney over McCain by more than 2 to 1.

    Vin Weber, a former member of Congress who backed McCain in 2000 but supports Romney this year, said the confusion outside Republican ranks is not surprising. “People usually think that the conservative leadership and the Republican leadership are one and the same, but they’re not,” Weber said.

    McCain has gotten to where he is because conservatives failed to agree on a single standard-bearer. Mike Huckabee has consistently peeled off religious conservatives. Fred Thompson further splintered the conservative vote, particularly in South Carolina. Both foiled Romney’s hope of becoming the early alternative to McCain. Moreover, because Romney changed his stand on a number of issues important to the Republican right, many in the rank and file never fully trusted him.

    Rudy Giuliani’s decision to make his stand in Florida left moderate votes to McCain in the earlier primaries. This allowed McCain to consolidate his position.

    Significantly, many of the leading Republicans championing McCain have never been heroes to the right. Giuliani, a social moderate, quickly endorsed McCain after dropping out on Wednesday. Gov. Charlie Crist, who helped McCain in Florida, earned his popularity as a moderate and appeals to independents and even Democrats. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who backed McCain on Thursday, has veered far from conservatism and now works closely with Democrats in the California Legislature.

    All this explains the ferocity of the continued resistance to McCain among conservative leaders. Rush Limbaugh has served as a spokesman for their cause. On his radio show Wednesday, Limbaugh excoriated those who “pretend that Sen. McCain is the choice of conservatives when exit poll data from every primary state show just the opposite.”

    “He is not the choice of conservatives, as opposed to the choice of the Republican establishment—and that distinction is key,” Limbaugh declared. “The Republican establishment, which has long sought to rid the party of conservative influence since Reagan, is feeling a victory today as well as our friends in the media.”

    McCain, of course, has yet to secure the nomination, and his performance in Wednesday’s debate was less than inspiring. His straight talk took a crooked path when he repeatedly refused to say whether he would now vote for his own immigration bill. McCain’s self-satisfied smile as Romney tried to defend himself against his opponent’s essentially false characterization of the former Massachusetts governor’s position on the Iraq war was hardly the visage of a gracious winner.

    But as one prominent conservative noted Wednesday night, Republican elected officials are starting to fall into line behind McCain, despite their reservations, simply because they think he will win. Their capitulation signals the end of the Reagan-Bush era and the beginning of something quite different.   

    E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)   

    © 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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By Tully, February 6, 2008 at 8:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

McCain picks Huck?  Great—an old man as prez and the VP in the wings is a Taliban-like religious fanatic

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By Michael, February 4, 2008 at 5:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

John McCain will be our next president.  This country will never stop loving war and killing.  I have fought for peace for years and all people do is vote for war. So, when the republicans get more war I hope they are happy. No matter how much this country loves a good war I will always be a Bleeding heart liberal.

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By Jacks, February 2, 2008 at 7:51 pm Link to this comment

All McCain has to do is select Huckabee as VP and he’ll shore up the movement social conservatives.

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By VillageElder, February 2, 2008 at 6:25 pm Link to this comment

The conservatives had a conscience.
The conservatives believed in fiscal responsibility.
The conservatives allowed for the social contract and wanted it paid for and if the money wasn’t there set priorities.
The conservatives didn’t make religious dogma a test—they believed in separation of church and state.

These neocons will tell any lie t get in a power position so they and their friends can rape and plunder our economy.  Destroy our constitution for their own ends and enrichment.

We really need a progressive movement.  A movement that will take the time and make the effort to organize and grow a movement that can challenge the corporate state effectively.  We are on the losing end of class warfare and there are more of us than there are of them.

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By cwhipps, February 2, 2008 at 11:49 am Link to this comment

The thing that bugs Rush Limbaugh about John McCain is that he offers no framework for his lies. The only difference between McCain and Bush is honesty. Karl Rove must feel like the hypnotist who’s been interrupted.

And with the possibility of not having Hillary to dangle in front of their eyes, it’s doubtful the patient will remain in a trace.

Adding to the confusion, Eisenhower’s daughter has endorsed Obama today in the Washington Post.

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By cyrena, February 2, 2008 at 4:05 am Link to this comment

Well SamSnedeggar,

At least YOU still tell the truth, and a few others of us still try to get it out.

And, I’m not sure if Scheer actually went away without a whimper, because I honestly don’t know. The same could be said of many others, (and many have accused Gore of it as well after the theft in 2000) but still, it’s hard to determine. Sometimes we actually DO whimper a bit, or even attempt to ROAR back against such injustices, and the hammer of the fascists, only to eventually realize that we’re at the end of a much bigger hammer than the one we hold, and at that point, it becomes a matter of just ‘staying alive’ and trying to gather whatever one might have left in the way of resources, and try again.

Now, I’m not speaking for HIS experience, but rather my own. Still, over the past 7 years, this has actually been the fate of many truth tellers, or what we sometimes call ‘whistle blowers’. Sometimes they survive (but are crippled) and sometimes they don’t,  and the rest of us never even hear of them.

Occasionally, some manage to survive, (Gore is an example) and go on to pursue their agendas on an independent path. That’s just one ‘take’ on it.

Meantime, it’s admittedly difficult for me to understand the point of this article. I guess I don’t know the difference between a repug and a true conservative, because not all repugs are. Still, at the end of the day, they all look the same to me. I don’t like repugs much, and I don’t see any difference between Hillary and John McCain. NONE.

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By BobZ, February 1, 2008 at 8:16 pm Link to this comment

I couldn’t have said it better myself. The extreme right wing gained power through George W. Bush. Power they did not have under either Reagan or the first Bush. Barry Goldwater was especially offended by the neoconservatives and social conservatives co-opting the conservative mantle and calling it their own, aided by abetted by loud mouth talk show hosts like Limbaugh and Hannity. No wonder McCain has disdain for them. He knows what they are really like - a modern version of the John Birch Society willing to go to war with anybody, scapegoat immigrants if their skin is brown, and raid the U.S. Treasury to line their own pockets and run up massive deficits for our grandchildren to pay.

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By JNagarya, February 1, 2008 at 4:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

the current crop of “conservatives” are NOT conservatives.

Barry Goldwater himself said of the Reagan crowd: “I don’t know what they are, but they aren’t conservatives.  They’re to the right even of ME.”

They are extremist radicals hiding behind the “conservative” label so as not to be seen for what they in fat are: the traditional Lunatic Fringe.  To give them credence by agreeing to repeat their lie only plays into their hands and gives them a platform on which to pretend to be mainstream, while villifying everyone to the left of themselves, and the better known totalitarians of the recent century.

Haven’t you learned that yet from the actions of the Neo-Con[artists] and the Bushit criminal enterprise?

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By DennisD, February 1, 2008 at 12:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree with Thomas Billis February 1 at 10:27 am

McCain is too much of a threat to the NWO/Neocon puppeteers because he occasionally doesn’t hold the party line on every issue.

Even though it only happens about as often as a leap year, it is not acceptable to the oligarchy that believes that once you buy a politician he/she should stay bought.

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By Thomas Billis, February 1, 2008 at 11:27 am Link to this comment

The problem that the republican establishment has with McCain is that he is not controllable in their organized theft of the public resources.His record on truly conservative issues is nearly perfect.It is the same problem they have with Huckabee.What they want is a moron like Bush or a an alzheimers victim with a pretty face to front their theivery.Romney fits that bill.It is nothing different.It may slow down their pillaging of the federal treasury.With Romney it will be full speed ahead.Remember the republican 12 commandent.To money above else be true.

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By SamSnedegar, February 1, 2008 at 11:19 am Link to this comment

“...the end of the Reagan-Bush era and the beginning of something quite different…”

You act like the Bushitters are going to let McCain be president just like Georgie, a puppet who does what he is told. I don’t think so. They won’t let McCain have it because he can’t be trusted to do as they say. (Georgie can’t do otherwise: left to his own brain, he’d never know what to do and what not.)

And there is not a dime’s worth of difference between the lying sons of bitches in the Bushitter regime and McCain, who himself is proving to be a lying son of a bitch.

I will admit that I might once have thought as you, that McCain, by bending over in 2000 and spreading his cheeks would become the heir apparent and be the next puppet, but he has proven to be a loose cannon over time, and thus I doubt that they would trust him to follow orders implicitly, and thus they won’t put him in the white house.

Mark my words, if there IS an election, it will come from a candidate supposedly chosen in an open convention, but one who is just like the moron in office today, utterly compliant and unable to understand the least part of what is going on, who will follow orders to the fullest.

The Bushitter gang of thugs didn’t spend all that time and effort to get a presidency for only 8 years. They are no more ready to give it up now than Saddam or the dictator of the former Yugoslavia, Milosevic, or Pervert Mushrat in Pakistan. They have already presented you with two unelectable Democrats, and the stage is set for an open convention to name . . . . . Jeb Bush? the heir apparent to his monkey-faced brother, who is likely five hundred million times SMARTER than Georgie, but knows the score and wouldn’t make waves.

It won’t be McCain. If it begins to look like McCain might take over the standard in some kind of groundswell, then he will die in a tragic airplane crash or perhaps a bus accident. Like I said, they invested a lot of time, money, and thought in getting themselves made the dictators of the USA, and they won’t relinquish power easily. The Constitution? don’t make me laugh. That went through the shredder back in 2001 right after they got their “Pearl Harbor.”

Who are they? I don’t know. The last investigative rdeporter knuckled under to the corporatists when Bob Scheer got fired by the LA Times and went away without a whimper. What did Scheer do to deserve that kind of harsh treatment? Told the truth. He doesn’t do THAT any more, not about Iraq and why we went there in the first place. But he USED to before they silenced him. I haven’t tried, but I’ll bet you can’t even Google up any of his old columns condemning the Bushitter gang of thugs for their oil theft. Eric Margolis the same way . . . he USED to tell the truth; no longer; too bad.

Today’s reporters are propagandists: they stick to the story and don’t venture where they would have to note that the USA coveted, lied, murdered, and stole to control the oil under the sands of Iraq. And certainly none of you will ever venture into the area of the puppet president and the nullification of Congress by the bought and bribed Supreme Court and the Executive which tells Congress to stuff it.

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By piceno, February 1, 2008 at 7:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Someone should strongly recommend to John McCain
that he eat a big slice of humble pie. If someone
were paid a dollar for everytime that McCAIN
mentions the word ‘I’ in his coversations, it would
not take long before that person becomes a millionare.
And while we are on the subject of his narcissim,
someone please tell McCain to get rid of that
permanent arrogant smirk on his face.

As far as Mr Giuliani is concerned, what sunk his
campaign was the weight of the jewelry consistently
worn by his greedy, materialistic wife. I could not
believe the gold necklace she wore a few days ago,
when I saw her on TV. It looked like it was worth
enough to feed all the inhabitants of a small third
world country for a day.

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By troublesum, February 1, 2008 at 2:01 am Link to this comment

John McCain: “NO JOBS, LOTS OF WARS.”  How can he lose with a platform like that?  Conservatives are ok with McCain because he loves war and is always on the right side of the class divide.  He votes against health care for poor children while continuing to vote in favor or pouring hundreds of billions more down the rat hole of Iraq.

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