Romney’s point

The bitter clash between the McCain and Romney campaigns is certainly heating up. Indeed, with the ordinary world on holiday, most of my emails these days come from one or other of these two campaigns. This piece by Chris Cillizza provides the flavor of the feud.
For example, when Romney charged that McCain had failed “Reagan 101″ by opposing two of the tax cuts proposed early on by President George W. Bush, McCain’s top aide Mark Salter fired back with this:

Welcome to Mitt Romney’s bizarro world, in which everyone is guilty of his sins. He didn’t support Ronald Reagan. He didn’t support President Bush’s tax cuts. He raised taxes in Massachusetts by $700 million. He knows John McCain is gaining on him so he does what any small varmint gun totin’, civil rights marching, NRA endorsed fantasy candidate would do: he questions someone else’s credibility. New Hampshire is on to you, Mitt. Give it a rest. It’s Christmas.

And when Romney blasted McCain’s over his support for a comprehensive immigration reform measure in the Senate and for his failure to renounce that support, McCain himself responded:

I know something about tailspins, and it’s pretty clear Mitt Romney is in one. It’s disappointing that he would launch desperate, flailing and false attacks in an attempt to maintain relevance. As the Union Leader said today, New Hampshire voters just aren’t buying his act, and these latest attacks won’t help him.

Both responses by McCain have this in common — they fail entirely to address the substance of Romney’s criticism. The reason, of course, is that McCain has no good response. He did oppose tax cuts, support for which does lie at the essence of Reagan conservatism. Similarly, he did support comprehensive immigration reform and his line on that support now is a grudging acknowledgement that the American people (though not necessarily McCain) want border security first.
The McCain campaign is playing something of a double game. It is touting McCain as the real conservative in the race, even as McCain surges (at least in New Hampshire) due in part to support from lliberal newspapers (the Boston Globe, the Concord Monitor, and the Valley News — the Union Leader, though not as conservative as it once was, is still legitimately conservative) and non-Republican voters.
Conservatives might ask themselves why McCain has the support of the Boston Globe, et al. The answers from these liberal organs aren’t very convincing. They cite McCain’s personal heroism, which has never been regarded as reason enough to support someone for president (if McCain advocated the policies Romney does, the liberal papers would probably warn that he’s the dreaded man on a white horse). They cite Romney’s flip-flops, which are real enough but can’t explain supporting McCain instead of, say, Fred Thompson.
The real reason why non-conservatives prefer McCain is because he opposed President Bush’s tax cuts, supported comprehensive immigration reform, sponsored McCain-Feingold, denounced effective but harsh interrogation techniques, etc. In other words, precisely the kinds of things the Romney campaign is legitimately pointing to. And the reason why independents like McCain is because he himself is, in many respects, an independent (with all the positives and negatives that go with that status). When the next controversial issue comes up, McCain will stake out his position based on his personal “take,” not on party, or conventionally ideological, principles. The other leading candidates (except perhaps Huckabee) are less likely to do so.
None of this necessarily means that conservatives shouldn’t vote for McCain. In my view, he is easily the most electable Republican and, if the environment is hostile enough next November, quite possibly the only electable one. He’s also sound on more issues than he’s unsound on, including most of the biggest ones. But conservatives should not doubt that a President McCain will infuriate them on more than a few occasions.
CORRECTION: The liberal Concord Monitor did not endorse McCain; instead it implored its readers to “stop” Mitt Romney. It did so at a time when, in the context of the emerging two person race in New Hampshire, the natural way to stop Romney would be to vote for McCain.

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