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Sunday, May 11, 2008
John McCain made some news last week giving a boilerplate speech about appointing conservative judges. (Memo to conservatives: saying "I favor judges who interpret the law and don't make law" is not a serious analysis of jurisprudence.)

There's nothing particularly remarkable about this: both Bushes promised the same thing (although Bush 41 diverted from his rhetoric and appointed liberal David Souter as well as conservative Clarence Thomas, and Bush 43 sought to put crony Harriet Miers to the Court). Reagan said it, and Dole said it too.

But what's strange about this is the timing. John McCain has already clinched the Republican nomination. This rhetoric on judges is the type of thing you do to attract conservatives during the primaries. The primaries are over. Conservatives (many of whom love the Iraq War and almost all of whom aren't willing to vote for Obama) are going to vote for McCain. They have nowhere else to go. Yes, they don't like his positions on campaign finance and immigration, but they have no leverage.

Richard Nixon, who, whatever you think about him, was quite good at winning elections, mastered the art of moving to the right in the primaries and moving to the left in the general election. And yet the right stuck with him until the last dog died. Why? Because they loved the fact that he won elections and drove liberals crazy. Indeed, despite my ambivalent opinion of Bill Clinton, it is clear most liberals loved the guy, for the same sorts of reasons-- he won elections and drove conservatives crazy.

John McCain cannot win this election by offering warmed over conservativism. Period. Huge majorities of the American people deserted conservativism due to Katrina and Iraq. The economic situation doesn't help conservatives either, and health care is also a winning issue for Democrats. I know a lot of conservatives think that they can win the election on meaningless hot-button issues like they did in 1988 with the Pledge of Allegiance and 2004 with the Swift Boat Veterans, but this isn't happening. In 1988, Bush was running for Reagan's 3rd term, and Reagan was immensely popular. The flag salute and Willie Horton are well remembered, but Bush would have won anyway. And in 2004, Kerry barely lost. Had he been able to articulate a plausible alternative narrative on Iraq, he would have won. He lost because he had originally supported the war and couldn't explain his twists and turns.

2008 is a much worse environment than 2004 for Republicans. We have had four more years of the pointless carnage in Iraq (and no, the "surge" is not a winning issue the way Republicans portray it-- it's one thing to "surge" and get out, but what Republicans advocate is permanent occupation of Iraq). We have had Katrina and what it exposed about Republican governance. We have a terrible economy and distress.

John McCain, if he wants to win this election, needs to start screwing over conservatives, big time, and moving to the left. Nixon favored the EPA, OSHA, a guaranteed income for all Americans, and national health care, and he at least professed the desire to end the Vietnam War and get American troops out. He needs to dare conservatives not to vote for him. Because the truth is that their threat is complete bluster. Meanwhile, the threat of average American voters deserting the Republican Party is very real. And Jeremiah Wright isn't going to bring them back.


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