McCain is the right’s only real choice

The current position of conservative ideologues on Sen. John McCain’s worthiness to be the Republican presidential nominee reminds one of the young man who threatens to punish a strict father by joining the Army. The result is likely to be far worse than accepting the fact that not everyone is as philosophically perfect as one would like. Thank the good Lord.

To keep from having to stay home from the polls in November if McCain is nominated, the purists on the right end of the party — assuming the spectrum doesn’t just go from right to right — want to certify the conservative credentials of anyone he picks as a running mate. Actually, they want to have a say in the selection. Otherwise, they profess at this stage, they will do the ideologically honorable thing. They will cut off their noses to spite their faces.

How brilliant is that? Hello, Hillary or Obama.

Ultra-conservative possibilities are being mentioned as acceptable vice-presidential nominees. Even the names of several members of the House, from where few are ever chosen for a national ticket, have been tossed into the mix. One of the most prominent of these, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, says he would put aside his differences with McCain but only after a long, clarifying chat.

The party’s hard rightists seem to favor former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who dropped out of the race, and the one candidate still contending, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who, while less acceptable to the purists, has strong support in the Christian wing of the party.

McCain and Romney showed a considerable amount of acrimony toward one another in the long run-up to this point in the nominating process. But one could draw an analogy here involving John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960. There was little love lost between the Kennedys and LBJ. But this didn’t keep JFK and RFK, the top adviser on his brother’s campaign, from inviting Johnson to join the ticket in a bid to improve the chances of winning the election — nor did it stop Johnson from accepting.

That same scenario may take place with whoever wins the Democratic nomination. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are cordial on camera but obviously strained in their relations. But they may have to put aside their differences and team up to win in November.

Whether or not McCain can be classified as more moderate than conservative is debatable. Through 20 years in the Senate, he has been more often to the right than in the middle. But he clearly doesn’t adhere to conservative dogma 100 percent of the time, and his stances on several prominent issues plus his reputation for irascibility and angry hip shooting have cost him friends and support with the GOP base.

The ideologues take exception with McCain’s position that illegal immigrants should be provided with a path to citizenship; that there should be no constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; that he has been the architect of campaign finance reform; that he has been a loud voice for aggressive action against global warming and for spending more federal dollars on stem-cell research. They also object to the fact that he twice voted against tax cuts on grounds they were unfair to the middle class, and that war expenses made this a wrong time to pare down revenues.

Another problem conservatives seem to have with McCain is his ability to work closely with some Democrats, a trait that any thinking person would believe is a major asset at a time when the government is all but shut down because of virulent partisanship. What the purists don’t mention is that some of these centrist stances and his penchant for working with the opposition to break the frequent gridlocks that stall the legislative agendas make him more attractive to independents and increase the likelihood that he could attract Democratic crossovers.

But don’t be fooled into thinking he has abandoned the principles that have made him a steady winner in one of the most conservative states, whose former senator, Barry Goldwater, was the father of modern American conservatism. Besides, what choice does the right have? Well, they can fix McCain by staying home and end up like the kid who joined the Army to show his parents he couldn’t be shoved around, or they can put aside their animosities, strive to elect their party’s candidate and work on things from the inside instead of pressing their noses against a White House window.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)