Storming Virginia Beach

How you look at things.
March 1 2000 3:30 AM

Storming Virginia Beach

Yesterday in Virginia Beach, Va., the home of Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, John McCain launched an audacious assault on conservative religious activists who have branded McCain a traitor to morality and the Republican Party. The stakes at Virginia Beach, like those at Normandy, are absolute. McCain is not merely attacking the "intolerant" right. He is trying to reinterpret and reverse the private-public polarity that has defined the GOP. And despite his rhetoric about "building a bigger Republican Party," McCain, like the invaders at Normandy, is attempting not merely to carve out a place for himself but to destroy those who tried to destroy him. He intends to define them out of the GOP and out of mainstream America.

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In New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan, McCain's enemies in the religious right—particularly Robertson and the National Right to Life Committee—tried to bludgeon him to death. In traditional Republican style, they implied that the public sector ("big government") represents "special interests," while the private sector ("freedom") represents "citizens." McCain's religious-right critics use this portrayal to argue that his campaign-finance reforms would thwart their mission by limiting their ability to spend money on political activity. McCain "wants to take First Amendment freedoms from citizen groups while he gives unrestricted power to labor unions," Robertson charged in a message delivered by phone to thousands of Michigan voters. In New Hampshire, the National Right to Life PAC urged voters to "let John McCain know that freedom of speech about politicians is no joke."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

At Virginia Beach, McCain redefined this polarity. He detached the key ingredient—virtue—from the private sector and attached it instead to the public sector. On the public side, McCain used his military record, his campaign-reform agenda, and his debt-reduction plan to associate virtue with himself, public service, and pride in government. "I have pledged my life to defend America and all her values," he said. "It's conservative to pay down the national debt." He concluded, "If you want to repair the people's confidence in the government that represents us, join us. If you want to restore the people's pride in America, join us. If you want to believe in a national purpose that is greater than our individual interests, join us." This is the fundamental equation of McCain's campaign: Government plus virtue—the virtue of military service, election reform, and debt payment—equals patriotism.

Conversely, in the private sector, freedom minus virtue equals greed. While associating values with government, McCain sought to strip these values from the image of his religious-right enemies. At Virginia Beach, he neutralized the right's moral arguments against him by testifying to his own Christian faith, citing his pro-life voting record, bringing along Gary Bauer (who, in McCain's words, "stands for the values of family and freedom"), and applauding evangelical activists James Dobson and Chuck Colson for saving the souls of prisoners and "rebuilding America's families."

Then came the most daring paragraph of the campaign: "I am a pro-life, pro-family fiscal conservative and advocate of a strong defense. And yet, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and a few Washington leaders of the pro-life movement call me an unacceptable presidential candidate. They distort my pro-life positions and smear the reputations of my supporters. Why? Because I don't pander to them. Because I don't [subscribe] to their failed philosophy that money is our message. I believe in the cause of conservative reform. … The Republican Party will prevail because of our principles … not special interest money or empire or ego. The union bosses who have subordinated the interests of working families to their own ambitions, to their desire to preserve their own political power at all costs, are mirror images of Pat Robertson."

With that one-word question—"Why?"—McCain converted his defense into an attack. Having eliminated moral explanations for the Robertson-NRLC campaign against him, he reduced the answer to money, power, and ambition. "They are people who have turned good causes into businesses," he charged. This pivoting assault signifies that the war between McCain and his religious-right enemies has become mortal on both sides. If they can convince the Republican electorate that they have good moral reasons to oppose McCain, they will kill him. If they can't, then McCain will use the failure of their arguments to deduce that their true motive is fund raising and power without moral purpose—in short, that they're just another "special interest." And in this scenario, that accusation will be coming not from the left but from the Republican presidential nominee. If McCain survives, Robertson is dead.

Furthermore, having defined campaign reform as patriotism, McCain is prepared to argue that Robertson's sabotage is not just greedy but unpatriotic: "We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson. We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones." And he's prepared to define Robertson by the evangelist's methods rather than his message. "The political tactics of division and slander are not our values," said McCain. "They are corrupting influences on religion and politics. And those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party, and our country."

It is one thing for the leader of the Christian Coalition to be accused by liberals of mixing church and state. It is quite another to be accused by a popular pro-life Republican presidential candidate and war hero of "shaming our faith." The cardinal rule of regicide is that if you go after the king, you had better kill him. John McCain is still alive. 

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