Fineman: The Gipper Lives On

In 1974, as Watergate was destroying the Republican presidency of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington to cheer up—and electrify—a rising generation of New Right activists. His patriotic speech ("We are … the last best hope of man on earth") was the first shot in what came to be known as the Reagan Revolution. The address was laced with praise for three recently released POWs he had brought with him. Proof that America was not a "sick society," he said, could be found in the "men who went through those years of torture and captivity in Vietnam." One of them was a Navy pilot who had become Reagan's (and his wife Nancy's) close friend. His name was Lt. John McCain.

Every Republican invokes Reagan, but none needs to more urgently than McCain, who still must win over conservatives who regard him as more of an apostate than an apostle. Although he's been winning primaries, he is losing among the self-described conservatives who form the GOP base. When McCain appears at this week's 34th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, aides will play an audiotape of the Reagan speech to back their candidate's claim to have been a "foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution." "John is and always has been a conservative," says Charlie Black, a top adviser.

Everybody doesn't know that. True, McCain has an 83 percent positive lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. He is a Reagan-style war hawk and foe of deficit spending and abortion rights. But he has committed many a grave sin in the eyes of the conservatives. He opposed the Bush tax cuts and the idea of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He worried aloud about global warming and offered an immigration plan that would give a "path to citizenship" to illegal immigrants. He supports limits on issue-advocacy spending and said he'd "entertain" the idea of being Democrat John Kerry's running mate in 2004. Last week he was endorsed by two men anathema to the right—Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger—and, worst of all, by The New York Times. The response has been loud. Rush Limbaugh accuses McCain of "moving to the left"; Laura Ingraham says he has all but abandoned the GOP.

Still, McCain is not without "movement" conservative friends. Endorsers include Sen. Sam Brownback, whose pro-life credentials are impeccable; and this week Steve Forbes, whose anti-tax bona fides are hard to top, is expected to get onboard, too. But more important is the network of Reagan "foot soldiers" who stayed in Washington after the revolution ended. In a daisy chain of access protection, they are reaching out to their unreconstructed cousins. "The idea is to keep lines open," says Craig Shirley, a PR executive and Reagan veteran who is advising McCain. "He has to show he is willing to listen."

One of those McCain is listening to is Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader who demands that candidates sign his "pledge" not to OK a tax increase. McCain refused to put his name on it. Yet in recent months, his advisers devised a tax plan with input from Norquist and others. First, McCain said he'd fight to make the Bush tax cuts permanent— even though he originally opposed them. Then, before New Hampshire, he unveiled a plan to cut corporate and investment taxes and to abolish the alternative minimum tax. "I'd still like to get it in writing," Norquist tells me, "but I'm pleased with McCain's tax-cut position now." That might not be good enough for folks at CPAC, and probably wouldn't have been good enough for Reagan. But the Gipper isn't coming to CPAC this year, except on an audiotape.