The talk that Sen. McCain gave to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 7 was aimed at achieving not a trivial goal: to transform a "foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution" into the Commander-in-Chief of the Republican Army marching toward the November presidential election. Although McCain’s nomination to the top of the G.O.P. presidential ticket is all but assured, his fitness for the role of the Republican Party leader, much less Ronald Reagan 2.0, is not.
It is a common place that any Republican presidential candidate must unite three groups of "conservatives": social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and conservatives on national security. McCain’s positions on immigration puts him at odds with social conservatives, whereas fiscal conservatives are unhappy with his refusal, in 2001 and 2003, to support President Bush’s tax cuts.
It is the national security arena where McCain’s conservatism is supposed to stand strong.
In his CPAC speech, McCain didn’t mince words when attacking his Democratic rivals, Sens. Clinton and Obama, for imposing "an arbitrary timetable" for the American troop withdrawal from Iraq. He then predictably lashed out at Iran and promised to forcefully let the Iranian authorities know that they won’t be allowed "to posses the [nuclear] weapons to advance their malevolent ambitions."
The truth is that while McCain is undeniably hawkish, he isn’t a true conservative. McCain’s ease about unlimited military commitments ("The United States military could stay in Iraq for maybe a hundred years and that would be fine with me") at whatever cost in treasury doesn’t bode well with his proclaimed passion for fiscal austerity. Besides, a real conservatism on national security would require a clear articulation of the national interest at stake when explaining to the American people the loss of 4,000 troops in Iraq.
As John Judis argued in a 2006 piece on McCain, a better way to describe him — taking into account his love for "regime change" and "nation-building" — would be calling McCain a neo-con. That explains why McCain has so enthusiastically supported the democracy promotion agenda of the President Clinton administration.
With conservatives like that, who needs liberals?