John McCain’s speech today at the Conservative Political Action Conference felt like déjà vu. Not because of anything McCain said in the past; he skipped last year’s conference. It echoed Rudy Giuliani’s appearance at the Family Research Council conference back in October, where, like McCain, Giuliani was wading into the piranha den.
"I truly believe that what unites us is much greater than any of the things that divide us," Rudy said at the time, referring perhaps to his pro-choice record, his support for gay rights, and his soap opera of a personal life. Likewise, McCain emphasized what he and his conservative audience could agree on: Liberty is good, taxes are bad, and Clinton/Obama must be stopped. He still got booed on campaign finance and illegal immigration, the latter of which he had just begun to mention when the hooting started. But every time it did, his supporters cheered louder to drown out the naysayers.
Expect the next few months to sound a lot like that. Every time a Limbaugh or Coulter starts taunting McCain, moderate Republicans are more likely to cheer louder than to try to win over the dissenters. If McCain needs to present a united front in November, it will clearly be a grudging one.
But McCain knows he has a long and difficult courtship ahead of him. "Many of you have disagreed strongly with some positions I have taken in recent years," he said. "I understand that. I might not agree with it, but I respect it for the principled position it is."
That’s the first step: Acknowledge that your opponents are reasonable people. Secondly, keep harping on your shared dedication to the surge and hawkishness toward Iran and North Korea. Don’t forget to emphasize your fear of a post-apocalyptic world of activist judges, high taxes, and entitlement programs. After that comes the winning over of leaders. Get a Robertson or a Brownback or a Bob Jones III to recommend you to religious voters, plus a few conservative senators who opposed McCain-Feingold. He may never be able to live down immigration reform, but confronting the reasons his plan failed and giving his opponents a fair hearing might be enough.
Rudy Giuliani was never able to wriggle out of his self-imposed security hawk bubble. McCain faces a similar problem, but he has a better nose than Rudy for diplomacy and compromise. With friction on the Democratic side still burning a hole in blue America, McCain can now get a head start on the coalition re-building. Best get going.
A note on the title: I know he's been back for a while. I just wanted an excuse to link to