Romney or McCain?

The National Review has adopted a unassailably reasonable criterion for deciding whom to endorse for President each election cycle. They select the most Conservative candidate that has a reasonable prospect of election. Even within criterion, there remains considerable room for disagreement. The National Review decided to endorse Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination.

At this point there are four Republican candidates with reasonable prospect of receiving the Republican nomination: Governor Mike Huckabee, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain, and Governor Mitt Romney.

Governor Huckabee can be dismissed as populist whose message is a distortion of Conservatism. He may be pro-Life and pro-Second Amendment Huckabee, but he employs the same class warfare rhetoric as Democrats and has a feel good foreign policy that is eerily reminiscent of President Jimmy Carter’s. Huckabee has managed to use an avuncular personality and genuine concern about others to win the Iowa caucus and improve in national poll results. However, his strategy is very unlikely to prevail against Democrats in the fall. They and their friends in the press will effectively ridicule Huckabee’s religious beliefs. Moreover, Huckabee does not represent a clear choice against Democrats. To corrupt a phrase from President Truman, when given a choice between a Democrat and a Democrat, the people will always choose the Democrat.

At one point last year, Mayor Giuliani was leading in national polls and it even looked possible that he might defeat prominent Democratic candidates. He is socially Liberal, but had agreed to appoint judges to the Federal Judiciary who adhere to an Originalist interpretation of the law and Constitution. Given this ability to actually win, Conservatives could reasonably overlook some of Giuliani’s positions, and support him for President. However, it presently appears that Giuliani has not caught on with the public. There is no longer the tradeoff between likelihood of winning and being less Conservative that works in Giuliani his favor. Moreover, if he runs against Senator Hillary Clinton, the two New Yorkers will go after each other with a venom that will rightfully sour the general public.

This leaves Romney and McCain to choose from. Romney has the advantage of being a Washington outsider and the aura of competence. He is a policy wonk of the first order and has the ability to explain his policies clearly and succinctly. Whatever, his more Liberal positions were in the past, he seems to have come to the correct Conservative ones now. It is likely that between Romney and McCain, Romney’s executive experience would make a more effective manager than McCain.

However, Romney does not seem to have connected emotionally with the public. His very smoothness and impeccable grooming and the fact that he never gets ruffled separates him from voters. Conservative writer Jonah Goldberg compared Romney to a BMW salesman. If Romney runs against Clinton, they would both have an “authenticity” problem. If he runs Senator Barack Obama, he will be at a significant disadvantage. In a choice between candidates of competence or excitement, the exciting candidate usually wins.

McCain has frustrated Conservatives more than once and he is likely to so if elected President. He sponsored “McCain-Feingold” campaign finance “reform” which many Conservatives and Libertarians consider an affront to the First Amendment. McCain opposed George Bush’s tax cuts which accounted for much of the recovery over the last four years. McCain, along with President Bush, supported “amnesty” for illegal aliens before there was any meaningful success in stemming the flow of such people to the US.

However, on the seminal issue of our time, the War on Terror, McCain has struck a perfect tone. He supported the liberation of Iraq. Before most others including President Bush, he recognized that the US needed a more aggressive strategy against Al Qaeda insurgents. He supported Bush’s surge policy when few others would. McCain’s popularity with independents atrophied as a consequence. In response, McCain said that “I would rather lose a campaign than a war.” Now that the surge has proved successful, McCain looks both wise and principled. McCain is now re-gaining much of his support among independents.

It is interesting to contemplate a McCain-Lieberman ticket. McCain could then seize the mantel of bi-partisanship and rise above conventional politics. The move would anger some Republicans which would put Democrat Lieberman one step away from the Presidency with an elderly president in office. In equal measure, it would frighten partisan Democrats who would find it difficult to attack their own previous vice-presidential candidate. This ticket will not happen, but it does make for interesting speculation.

Finally, McCain has moral seriousness that no other candidate can manage. He suffered as a POW without loosing his dignity. It is impossible to tell whether his POW experience developed or simply revealed McCain’s courage, but he certainly has it.

McCain is not the perfect candidate. Indeed, the much loved Reagan did not seem to be a perfect candidate when running in 1980, but at this point, McCain is the best bet for both Republicans and the country.

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