It didn’t hurt John McCain during the Republican primary when he told Iowa voters to forget ethanol subsidies, or when he broke the news to Michigan voters that their auto industry jobs were not coming back. Just as it only boosted his reputation as the straightest talker in the Republican field when he turned down Florida Governor Charlie Crist on his catastrophic insurance fund, and told conservatives he still supported stem cell research, and admitted that he didn’t listen to Rush Limbaugh.
In spite of all of that, or perhaps because of it, he has wrapped up the nomination.
But he now finds himself in a new and foreign role: party leader and peacemaker. For the former navy cadet who finished nearly last in his class and first in demerits, and the senator who delighted in declaring that he would never win a “Miss Congeniality” award from his colleagues, this is new turf indeed.
The old John McCain might have told Mike Huckabee to get lost, and in no uncertain terms. The new John McCain professes “respect” for his foe and disclaims any intention to chase him out of the race.
It’s also easy to imagine Mr. McCain, in times gone by, telling Senator Rick Santorum, who vilified him during the race and still insists that the “conservative jury is out,” that no one much cares about the opinions of a politician who lost his last race by almost 20 points. Instead, Mr. McCain has engaged his critics, visiting with Senate and House Republicans to seek their endorsements and pledging to work with them toward common goals.
Though he may only be doing so out of long-term necessity, Mr. McCain has listened to the demands of aggrieved conservatives for certain vice presidential picks and “pledges” on border security and tax cuts, and has indicated to them, at least, that they will have a seat at table when the time comes.
He has even resisted the urge to return fire from Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, who endorsed Mr. Huckabee and lambasted Mr. McCain for supporting stem cell research. Instead, Mr. McCain graciously accepted the endorsement of Christian conservative Gary Bauer, who he lauded as “a forceful, unapologetic advocate for the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.”
And even as Mr. McCain has shown restraint, he has so far managed to avoid the sorts of substantive compromises with his critics that would cost him his hard-earned reputation as an independent operator. He didn’t win the nomination by taking the political advice of his party’s most strident conservative voices, and he is not about to lose a general election before the race has begun by following them over a political cliff.
But there’s the tricky part. A one-sided truce won’t do him much good in a general election. Mr. McCain’s conservative critics are busy compiling wish lists as the condition to their full-throated support for the G.O.P. nominee. They certainly don’t want any more talk of “cap-and-trade” emission policy or support for stem cell research. They are still looking to extract an iron-clad promise on border security (in lieu of comprehensive immigration reform). And they have a selection of staunch social conservatives for the “shortlist” for vice president.
Mr. McCain has often taken personal delight in sticking his finger in the eye of the Republican establishment and its faithful followers. Now greater things are at stake than the satisfaction of skewering political rivals. In a presidential race he simply cannot afford a two-front war.
So he’s threading a political needle. To abandon his unorthodox (for a Republican) views on global warming, stem cell research and campaign finance reform would be to do perhaps irreparable damage to his greatest asset: his reputation as a man of integrity. But it’s hard to see how he can get through the next nine months simply ignoring his critics.
The few months ahead will be a test of whether he can retain both his newfound diplomatic skills and his political soul.