Will Conservative Republicans Back McCain? Following Romney’s Departure, John McCain Appears Set to Become GOP Nominee

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A day after John McCain is booed at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Michael Tomasky, editor of Guardian America, examines the Republican race and McCain’s relationship with the three wings of the GOP: the neoconservatives, the theo-conservatives and the radical anti-taxers. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Senator John McCain is virtually assured the Republican presidential nomination following Thursday’s departure of his closest rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Romney made the announcement before the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, in Washington D.C.

    MITT ROMNEY: Now, if I fight on in my campaign all the way to the convention, I — I want you to know, I’ve given this a lot of thought — I’d forestall the launch of a national campaign and, frankly, I’d make it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win. Frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.

    This isn’t an easy decision. I hate to lose. My family, my friends, you, my supporters across the country, you’ve given a great deal to get me to where I have a shot to becoming president. If this were only about me, I’d go on. But it’s never been only about me. I entered this race — I entered this race because I love America. And because I love America, in this time of war, I feel I have to now stand aside for our party and for our country.

    You guys are great. I will continue to stand for conservative principles. I’ll fight alongside you for all the things we believe in. And one of the things we believe in is that we cannot allow the next president of the United States to retreat in the face of evil extremism.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Romney bows out after a disappointing showing in Tuesday’s primaries, including a loss in the coveted state of California, where he recently led polls. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Congressmember Ron Paul are still in the race, but far behind McCain in delegates and popular support.

McCain will get another boost at today’s CPAC meeting, where President Bush is expected to implicitly endorse his campaign. According to excerpts released by the White House, Bush plans to tell the audience: “[Soon] we will have a nominee who will carry the conservative banner into this election and beyond.”

After Romney’s speech, McCain took the same stage with an appeal to the Republican rightwing base.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Surely, I have held other positions that have not met with widespread agreement from conservatives. I won’t pretend otherwise, nor would you permit me to forget it. On — on the issue of illegal immigration, a position which —-

    CROWD: Boo!

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: —- which — a position which obviously still provokes the outspoken opposition of many conservatives, I stood my ground, aware that my position would imperil my campaign. I respect your opposition, for I know that the vast majority of critics to the bill based their opposition in a principled defense of the rule of law. While I and other Republican supporters of the bill were genuine in our intention to restore control of our borders, we failed, for various and understandable reasons, to convince Americans that we were. I accept that, and I have pledged that it would be among my highest priorities to secure our borders first, to secure our borders first, and only after we achieved widespread consensus that our borders are secure would we address other aspects of the problem in a way that defends the rule of law and does not encourage another wave of illegal immigration.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But in what could be an indication of the difficulties he may face appealing to some Republican voters, McCain was booed as he discussed undocumented immigration.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I will start by making the Bush tax cuts permanent. I will cut corporate tax rates from 35 to 25 percent to keep industries and jobs in this country. I will end — I will end the alternate minimum tax, and I won’t let a Democratic Congress raise your taxes and choke the growth of our economy.

    They will offer a big government solution to healthcare insurance coverage. I intend to address the problem with free market solutions and with respect for the freedom of individuals to make important choices for themselves.

    They will — they will appoint to the federal bench judges who are intent on achieving political changes that the American people cannot be convinced to accept through the election of their representatives. I intend to nominate judges who have proven themselves worthy of our trust, that they take as their sole responsibility the enforcement of laws made by the people’s elected representatives, judges of the character and quality of Justices Roberts and Alito, justices who can be relied upon to respect the values of the peoples whose rights, laws and property they are sworn to defend.

    Senator Clinton and Senator Obama will withdraw our forces from Iraq based on an arbitrary timetable designed for the sake of political expediency and which recklessly ignores the profound human calamity and dire threats to our security that would ensue. I intend to win the war and trust in the proven judgment of our commanders there and the courage and selflessness of the Americans they have the honor to command.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the Republican nomination, we’re joined from Washington, D.C. by Michael Tomasky, editor of Guardian America, the American website of the British newspaper, The Guardian, also a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Michael Tomasky. Can you start off by talking about the significance of Romney, well, not exactly dropping out — and maybe you can explain this — but suspending his campaign?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, yeah, he suspended his campaign, but I think, you know, there are a lot of candidates down through history who are still running suspended campaigns, so I think he’s done. I think they’re starting to disconnect the phones.

You know, Romney never caught on. He changed his message four or five different times over the course of the campaign. I remember the most sort of comical one to me was when he noticed — when everybody noticed — that Barack Obama’s message of change started to catch on, Romney started to say, “Hey, I’m for change, too.” And change became a part of his slogan and the banner behind him.

And, you know, the odd, to say the least, sound bite that you played from him, where he seemed to suggest that he was getting out of this race — excuse me, suspending his campaign — so that we wouldn’t be subject to another terrorist attack or he wouldn’t have that hanging over his head, I think that’s weird even to conservatives.

And he had a habit of statements like that. The most notable one, I think, was from last summer or fall, it was, when a citizen in Iowa asked him, “You have five draft-age sons. If you’re so gung ho about the war, why aren’t any of them in service?” And he said, “Well, they’re serving their country by helping to elect me president,” as if, you know, the willingness to suffer a paper burn stuffing envelopes was the same thing as the willingness to get blown to bits halfway around the world. So, you know, he had a history of these kinds of things. He never caught on and never really established a connection with any of the important conservative constituencies.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Michael, to what degree do you think that his Mormon faith had an impact, especially given the fact that — of the huge showing that Huckabee has had in the South, largely among fundamentalist Christians, and there is really an enormous divide and animosity between many fundamentalist Christians and the Mormon Church?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah, there is, Juan, and I think there was always a suspicion there among some, but I would say that it wasn’t quite as big a factor as it might have become. In exit polls that I was looking at from some of the Super Tuesday races, particularly in some of the states down South, Romney did pretty well among evangelical voters, voters who said that they were part of the religious right. Huckabee won those, but Romney finished second among those voters in most of those states, well above McCain and not too far behind Huckabee. So I don’t think that became as much of a factor as just the fact that Romney was too chameleon-like.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Romney of Bain Capital, now they’re buying Clear Channel, owns over 1,200 radio stations around the country.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Right. So maybe when he tries again in 2012, he’ll be a little better positioned.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Michael, I’d like to ask you about a recent article you had about the Republican Party in general in the New York Review of Books, where you basically sort of identified the party as having three major wings in it — the theo-conservatives, the neoconservatives and the anti-tax radicals — and the interplay between them. Could you talk about that some?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah, these are the — these are the three legs of the conservative coalition, and they all have influence over who’s going to be the nominee in that party, and they all have a lot of power here in Washington. And usually, in recent history, you know, since Ronald Reagan’s time, since this conservative movement became ascendant, they’ve all had to be at least OK with the Republican nominee. And sometimes all three have been quite enthusiastic, and they were — all three were pretty enthusiastic in 2000 about George Bush, although ironically, if you look back, the neoconservatives were a little bit less crazy about Bush, strange as that may sound now. But he was a different kind of candidate, then he became president. But all three of those usually have to, you know, sign off on the Republican nominee.

So now we’re in a situation where McCain is obviously going to be the nominee, unless something completely unpredictable happens. And let’s just go down the checklist. Well, he’s OK with the neocons. We know that. He’s their guy. He talks about perpetual war in a way that they like. With the radical anti-taxers, they don’t really like him. Some of them have warmed to him or are trying to warm to him, trying to talk themselves into warming to him. But, you know, at best, he’s about fifty-fifty there, or I’d say slightly under fifty-fifty. And then, the religious right doesn’t like him at all. And we saw, as Amy mentioned earlier, that Dobson said there’s no way he can vote for McCain under any circumstances. So on a scale, in other words, of zero to three, three being, you know, perfect conservative harmony, the nominee of the Republican Party is at about a 1.4. That’s a pretty astonishing fact, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Tomasky, editor of Guardian America

. What about the possibility of — and is there a possibility of — a Huckabee-McCain team? Huckabee, actually sweeping the South, didn’t have to pay. What was the figure? For Giuliani, it was $20 million for one delegate, the most expensive campaign in history. For Romney, it was how much for his delegates? I can’t remember.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Can’t remember.

AMY GOODMAN: But Huckabee’s success in the South and what that would mean for McCain, also being the conservative that Huckabee is?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Huckabee is probably the odds-on favorite to be McCain’s vice presidential nominee today, but Huckabee also is not really liked by the radical anti-tax wing of the party. They consider him, strange as this may sound to us, progressive. They mean that, of course, as a dirty word. They note that in Arkansas during his term as governor, he raised taxes. He did terrible things, like increased education spending. Now, these things he did, he hastens to point out, as we know, governors can’t run deficits, and so he had to balance the budget. So he had to do something. So he raised some taxes. He was also under court order to do something about this education spending. So he tries to say, “My hands were tied,” but that doesn’t really placate the anti-tax groups of the right. So the one particular anti-tax group, the Club for Growth, really, really has been giving it to Huckabee for months now, and they don’t like him. So while Huckabee would assuage the religious right, he wouldn’t make the fiscal conservatives very happy at all. So, you know, there’s a certain amount of sense, and one could argue that he’s earned it, in a way, because he’s out there getting votes and he’s the last man standing, except for the nominee. But there’s going to be a big fight inside Republican circles about whether McCain should give it to him.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you also mention in your article that you see the Republicans basically as being controlled by factions and that are to some degree out of touch with the general population. Yet, certainly under President Bush, they were able to get a substantial number of the American people, and some would argue whether it was a majority or not, but — of the voters to back them. And you saw already with Romney, him putting out the position that there’s a war going on, there’s a fight against terrorism, we must all subsume ourselves, our own personal interests, to winning that war, the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism. Your sense of how that will play in the election in November?

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, that’s going to be McCain’s biggest argument, obviously, and, you know, whether it’s Clinton or Obama, he’s going to try to say, as he said in the clip that you guys played, that the Democrats are ready to surrender and so forth. He used that word about Hillary Clinton a couple of weeks ago. I think that will galvanize conservatives and Republicans. I don’t know that that’s going to have that much reach to independents. In other words, in 2004 — and we remember that there was this whole soccer mom and security mom phenomenon that the pundits named it back in 2004, you know, suburban and exurban mothers worried, apparently literally, about a terrorist attack in their town. That was a big deal in 2004, and Bush was able to exploit that fear. I’m not sure that that’s going to be quite such a big factor in 2008. I just think that’s faded a little bit, and I think other concerns that play more to the Democrats’ strength have come to the fore. But that doesn’t mean that that’s not what the Republicans are going to try. I think that’s their best shot.

Now, the other shot they have at unifying certainly their party and their base is that if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, I think that, you know, a lot of people will come out to stop her from getting to the White House because of the way they feel about the Clintons.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, thirty seconds, Michael Tomasky, the issue of immigration, you heard the booing for John McCain last night. I’m watching Fox, and I’m seeing the reference to “Juan McCain.”

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, if you ask me, McCain just made, in the clip that you played, a pretty big implicit step toward trying to accommodate the rightwing base. I think between the lines of what he said there was that he’s willing to remove the so-called amnesty provisions of the immigration bill from the border security provisions, and if he’s president, do the border security provisions, as they call them, first. That’s what he got that round of applause for. And so, I think that was a signal, and I think that that was a major accommodation, actually, that the Democratic candidate ought to exploit and ought to hurt him with independents.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Tomasky, thanks very much for being with us, editor of Guardian America, The Guardian’s American website, also writes regularly for the New York Review of Books. His latest piece on the Republicans called, “They’d Rather Be Right.”

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