I understand what Rod is saying here, but I think he and Gerard Baker are making the same mistake when they describe the rise of McCain in terms of change and revolution respectively. McCain is the essential status quo candidate, and represents continuity with the current administration on a range of questions. Some would argue, correctly, that the current administration has not governed conservatively using any reasonable definition of that word, and those who have opposed the administration from the right since the beginning know this better than anyone, but where McCain’s critics have embraced, indeed celebrated, the administration for the most part they have determined that McCain is apostate, anti-conservative, and so on. In this bizarre universe, where Giuliani can be seen as one of the last of the Reaganites but Huckabee and McCain are political lepers, the people who have the most to gain by emphasising the idea of a McCain nomination representing a radical departure from conservatism are the very people who have apologised and flacked for the administration that did most of the actual damage that they fear McCain might do in the future.
Rod is right that there are several conservatisms (around which orbit, I would add, many a Republican constituency dressed up as a pseudo-conservatism), and he is right again that these conservatisms are not coterminous with the GOP. Indeed, one of the problems of conservatives in America today was the persistent effort to identify themselves with the party when it was riding high (”Republicans are winning because they are conservative”) and attempting, rather unsuccessfully, to wash their hands of the party’s mistakes, blunders and disasters when the public turned against the party (”Republicans lost in 2006, not conservatives”). The horror conservatives are feeling and the loud protests they are registering at the prospect of a McCain nomination all stem from this same confusion. If you have grown accustomed to identifying the fortunes of conservatism rather closely with the GOP, you begin to treat Republican nominees as representatives of the new direction of conservatism. McCain could not threaten the movement, except that the movement has welded itself to the GOP in so many ways that what happens to the one affects the other as well.
So it is a mistake to see McCain’s rise marking a “changing of the guard,” if that “changing of the guard” means ”McCain’s rise is eroding the hegemony of the established conservative opinion-makers.” On the contrary, movement leaders are setting up a gauntlet for McCain, as if they were soldiers demanding a donative for a would-be emperor, and they will finally raise him on their shields only after they have extracted that payment. Until they receive it, they will continue to serve as the guards, so to speak, and should he come to power they will have left McCain with the unspoken threat that they will unmake him and topple him if he goes against them. A McCain administration, as unlikely as I think it will be, would be one plagued by having constantly to give assurances to core constituencies and would be a period racked by internecine fighting within the party and movement. The recent anti-McCain campaign has served to put McCain on notice (perhaps there are still a few true believers who think they can vault Romney to success by tearing McCain down), and perhaps he has once again ”gotten the message,” as he says, but more likely the rise of McCain does not amount to a “bloodless coup” (per Baker) or a “changing of the guard,” but the beginnings of “palace” intrigues and plotting among the many factions.
In fact, the coolness with which leading movement figures are receiving McCain, or rather the heat of their fury against him helps to secure their authority with their audiences, misleadingly give them credit for resisting the corruption of conservatism (even though they did little or nothing to stop that corruption for the past seven years and much to facilitate it) and allows them to portray themselves as oppositional, independent figures when they are nothing of the kind. This pose of opposition and independence is the same one that many of the leading radio hosts and pundits assumed after the ‘06 electoral debacle, having right up until then exhorted their audiences to support the GOP regardless of what it had done or failed to do. This is the phony independence that permits them to retain some shred of credibility as critics when their influence is in less of a position to drive policy change (i.e., when the GOP is in the minority) after having squandered opportunities to wield influence when it might have mattered.