What Will Rush, Hugh Say if McCain Wins?

Certain conservative opinion makers are not pleased. Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, much of the roster at the National Review and

Certain conservative opinion makers are not pleased.

Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, much of the roster at the National Review and many (but certainly not all) of their more conservative talk radio and blogger colleagues are beside themselves at the prospect that one of the Republican contenders they deemed to be “not conservative” might be nominated. As Mike Huckabee won Iowa, John McCain took South Carolina and Fred Thompson bestirred himself to draft a note withdrawing from the race, the fretting has intensified. How could the voters reject their advice?

There are a few explanations the dismayed conservative punditocracy might use to explain their apparent disconnect with Republican voters.

One is that the electorate has not rejected their advice about what constitutes an unacceptable candidate. Voters are simply rejecting the flawed candidates who were poor standard-bearers for conservatism. This scenario seems eminently reasonable given that the pundits’ favored contenders were in fact so terribly hobbled by their own shortcomings.

Mr. Thompson’s ideas were not a problem. His own indifference and lack of organizational prowess were. He had Social Security and national security plans. He unfortunately lacked the energy and the willingness to put up with the indignities of campaigning.

As for Mr. Romney—who may still win, but who has underperformed in the early going—he certainly was a dutiful spokesman for every possible item on the conservative wish list, but perhaps he was a bit too dutiful. His penchant for pandering grew to ludicrous proportions as he not only reversed himself on a long list of policy positions but cooked up a distinctly unconservative proposal for rescuing Michigan’s auto industry just in time for its primary. When he finally reverted to the “real” Mitt Romney—an optimistic businessman with no compunctions about directing an activist government—it was clear that even his newly minted conservative persona was in a Bain-like turnaround.

Who could blame voters for failing to rally to either of these causes?

Another would be that the conservative punditry actually “won.” Mr. McCain has been getting stronger, they would argue, by embracing conservative positions in order to gain the nomination. Mr. McCain confessed that he had learned the lesson about immigration reform, that border control is essential before pursuing any legalization plan for those already here. He promised to retain the Bush tax cuts. He embraced his support of gun rights and touted his pro-life voting record. This, the conservatariat could contend, and not Mr. McCain’s global-warming ruminations or his role in the Gang of 14, is what helped him win.

There is some truth to this. We saw that starting with his South Carolina victory speech; continuing with his Florida ads, Mr. McCain did stress conservative themes and reach out to the base on many of its favored issues. (This explanation does, however, leave open the question as to why the conservative pundits opposed Mr. McCain so vehemently in the first place.)

But it may simply be that the Republican electorate (or at least enough of it to select a nominee) may not be as ideologically pure as the conservative pundits might prefer. Perhaps many Republican voters really do think global warming should be addressed. It could be that lots of Republican voters like tax cuts but want them accompanied by good old-fashioned budget cuts. It may be that when they’re not in the throes of an impassioned immigration debate, many Republican voters wouldn’t mind eventually legalizing millions of immigrants, so long as the border is sealed first. And frankly, G.O.P. primary voters simply may find Mr. McCain’s heretical support for campaign finance reform a lot less significant than personal character traits like honesty, courage and persistence.

Now, nervous pundits may be spared their embarrassment if Mr. Romney can survive Florida and Super Tuesday. However, if he does not, they will have to mull over the choices to explain why their favored sons failed. I suspect that rather than confess that Mr. McCain was not so bad to begin with, or that Republican voters as a whole are less ideologically rigorous than their core listeners and readers, they’ll suggest that the outcome was all due to their endorsees’ personal and tactical shortcomings.

A few may even author rebuttals to their own endorsements. After all, pundits always get the last word. What Will Rush, Hugh Say if McCain Wins?