IT IS NOT news that much of the conservative base bitterly opposes John McCain and is appalled that the man they consider a Republican apostate could soon be the GOP's presidential nominee. From talk radio to the blogosphere to the conservative press, many on the right are outraged that what Mitt Romney last week called "the House that Reagan Built" - the modern Republican Party - might anoint as its standard-bearer the candidate who by their lights is the least likely to follow in the Gipper's footsteps.
Conservatives bristle at the thought of a Republican president who might raise income and payroll taxes. Or enlarge the federal government instead of shrinking it. Or appoint Supreme Court justices who are anything but strict constructionists. Or grant a blanket amnesty to millions of illegal aliens.
Now, I don't believe that a President McCain would set out to do any of those things. But President Reagan did all of them. Reagan also provided arms to the Khomeini theocracy in Iran, presided over skyrocketing budget deficits, and ordered US troops to cut and run in the face of Islamist terror in the Middle East. McCain would be unlikely to commit any of those sins, either.
Does this mean that Reagan was not, in fact, a great conservative? Of course not. Nor does it mean that McCain has not given his critics on the right legitimate reasons to be disconcerted. My point is simply that the immaculate conservative leader for whom so many on the right yearn to vote is a fantasy. Conservatives who say that McCain is no Ronald Reagan are right, but Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan either. Neither is Mike Huckabee. And neither was the real - as opposed to the mythic - Ronald Reagan.
The conservative case against McCain is clear enough; I made it myself in some of these columns when he first ran for president eight years ago. The issues that have earned McCain the label of "maverick" - campaign-finance restrictions, global warming, the Bush tax cuts, immigration, judicial filibusters - are precisely what stick in the craw of the GOP conservative base.
But this year, the conservative case for McCain is vastly more compelling.
On the surpassing national-security issues of the day - confronting the threat from radical Islam and winning the war in Iraq - no one is more stalwart. Even McCain's fiercest critics, such as conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, will say so. "The world's bad guys," Hewitt writes, "would never for a moment think he would blink in any showdown, or hesitate to strike back at any enemy with the audacity to try again to cripple the US through terror."
McCain was never an agenda-driven movement conservative, but he "entered public life as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution," as he puts it, and on the whole his record has been that of a robust and committed conservative. He is a spending hawk and an enemy of pork and earmarks. He has never voted to increase taxes, and wants the Bush tax cuts made permanent for the best of reasons: "They worked." He is a staunch free-trader and a champion of school choice. He is unabashedly prolife and pro-Second Amendment. He opposes same-sex marriage. He wants entitlements reined in and personal retirement accounts expanded.
McCain's conservatism has usually been more a matter of gut instinct than of a rigorous intellectual worldview, and he has certainly deviated from Republican orthodoxy on some serious issues. For all that, his ratings from conservative watchdog groups have always been high. "Even with all the blemishes," notes National Review, a leading journal on the right (and a backer of Romney), "McCain has a more consistent conservative record than Giuliani or Romney. . . . This is an abiding strength of his candidacy."
As a lifelong conservative, I wish McCain evinced a greater understanding that limited government is indispensable to individual liberty. Yet there is no candidate in either party who so thoroughly embodies the conservatism of American honor and tradition as McCain, nor any with greater moral authority to invoke it. For all his transgressions and backsliding, McCain radiates integrity and steadfastness, and if his heterodox stands have at times been infuriating, they also attest to his resolve. Time and again he has taken an unpopular stand and stuck with it, putting his career on the line when it would have been easier to go along with the crowd.
A perfect conservative he isn't. But he is courageous and steady, a man of character and high standards, a genuine hero. If "the House that Reagan Built" is to be true to its best and highest ideals, it will unite behind John McCain.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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