GOP Conservatives: A Crusade Without a King

Washington Matters

GOP Conservatives: A Crusade Without a King

How is it, exactly, that a pro-life, pro-defense, fiscal conservative war hero finds himself on the outs with the right-wing of the GOP? The answer lies not in John McCain, who's 82.3% lifetime voting record from the American Conservative Union is just six points shy of one of his fiercest critics, ex-Sen. Rick Santorum, but in a conservative movement built on confrontation and the language of battle. They don't have opponents but enemies. They're not engaged in a political duel, but a cultural war -- a crusade to preserve American values. And McCain is a consensus builder, not a crusader. 

McCain and the party base share the ideology of Goldwater and Reagan but are divided over tactics. And tactics as much as anything has been the source of conservative power since the mid-1980s. Tired of the congenial leadership of minority House Republicans, backbencher Newt Gingrich began rallying conservatives by breaking with the decorum of the day and launching heated attacks on majority Democrats. Gingrich then spent the early 1990s demonizing Democrats, Bill and Hillary Clinton especially, and tapped into American rage to  take over Congress in 1995. In time, though, the country grew weary of the partisanship and divisiveness, which is why George Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative" and criticized House leaders.

As a president who lost the popular vote and had to deal with a nearly evenly divided Congress, Bush was expected by many to reach across the aisle and seek bipartisan consensus. But with rare exception, Bush scorned Democrats and even GOP moderates and worked with congressional leaders to narrowly pass legislation -- often by a vote or two after repeatedly pressuring reluctant Republicans -- through party discipline, not compromise. Votes were loyalty tests in an us-against-them world. Leaders ginned up pressure on members from lobbyists, interest groups and from the conservative grass-roots.

McCain, however, is a legislator and institutionalist who takes great pride in finding workable compromises and building partnerships across ideological and party boundaries. Even worse, in the eyes of  the base and of party builders, McCain took stands that seemed to strike at conservative power.

Tom Delay and his allies built a relationship with deep-pocketed contributers and lobbyists. McCain targeted special interest money with his campaign finance reform law that many Republicans believe left their party at a disadvantage. Perhaps worse, McCain interfered with the GOP dream of packing the Supreme Court. Bush and GOP senators waged a long and fevered fight over Democratic filibusters of conservative court nominees. Despite the risk that they would deprive themselves of the same tool if Democrats captured control of White House and Senate, conservative senators developed a strategy for overturning long-standing  -- and long controversial -- filibuster rules. But McCain and 13 other senators from both parties, worried that the move would change the deliberative character of the Senate, struck a compromise that derailed the rules change and took the steam out of an issue that had unified and energized conservatives across the country. McCain was derided as a near traitor.

There's a reason that McCain and Barack Obama have demonstrated such strong and broad appeal in the primaries and national polls: Many Americans are clearly exhausted by the battles and now thirst for national unity and cooperation over confrontation. But where does that leave a movement built on confrontation and fueled by the language and imagery of war? Hoping and praying for Democrats to nominate Hillary Clinton. Then they would be on familiar territory  -- fighting a clear and hated enemy.