The difference between Republicans and conservatives

‘After running one of the most disgraceful ‘honorable’ campaigns in American political history … you’d think the least of the military McCains could do is to slink quietly off into the wild blue yonder with the thanks of a grateful nation trailing in his wake. But no, at age 74, he’s still in the Senate … where he can continue to reach across the aisle, poke his finger into the eyes of conservatives, hog the media spotlight, rail about Republican ‘isolationists,’ suck up to Fox News, and unleash his ankle-biting mini-me onto his enemies. Please, just go away.”

This was National Review Online contributor Michael Walsh’s pique-bomb for John McCain, R-Ariz., whose behavior was clearly irking him.

But the appraisal is as short on understanding as it is long on rhetoric. McCain’s “disgraceful” campaign did a remarkable job under the circumstances in staying close to President Barack Obama. He actually led him for two weeks before the financial implosion wrecked his chances.

McCain was also elected to the Senate five times, by fairly large margins. Having put away a movement conservative challenger by a 2-1 margin in the 2010 primary, he has the right and the power to do as he wants. He represents his state — not conservative pundits, to whom he owes nothing. He has the right to poke his finger in the eyes of anyone when he thinks they deserve it. He has the right to rail at “isolationists” when he thinks that they’re wrong on the issues. And they, of course, have every right to rail back at him.

The key to unpacking this odd little fracas lies in understanding that the Republican party and the conservative movement are two different things. The conservative movement is a self-selecting assortment of people who agree in large part on key sets of issues, work to promote them and take dim views of heretics. It is a creed, whereas the Republican Party is a broad coalition of which the conservative movement is a part, not the whole. The conservative movement is conservative in the absolute sense, about 25 degrees to the right of the center of public opinion, and largely restricted to like-minded people. The Republican party is conservative in the relative sense that it is the more conservative of the two major parties, and home to everyone in the country to the right of the center, by one degree or by one hundred.

There are no “Republicans in Name Only,” only different kinds of Republicans. Conservatives think those who dispute them are media sellouts. More often, they simply have differing views.

Conservatives don’t get to judge who does and does not belong in the party. They do get to make their case, and try to win over enough people to form a majority. When they fail, it may mean that the appeal of their cause is more limited than they imagine; or that their cause has appeal, but they do a poor job of selling it. Either way, the fault may be theirs.

Why should McCain “go away” if he ticks off a blogger? If not a movement conservative, he’s a genuine hero, one of the few who saved Iraq from disaster, and a good enough fit for the center-right party. Politics is persuasion and argument, not creeds and dictation. People offended by this might find the clergy less trying. Or perhaps, they should just slink away.

Examiner columnist Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of “Great Expectations; The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”

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