Why the Right Hates McCain

Ann Coulter has made controversy her currency, outrage her oeuvre. And a lot of currency it is: over the past decade, Coulter's earned a huge amount of money from an unbroken streak of six best sellers, each an angry diatribe against liberals, most featuring her slim blond figure on the cover. Coulter Inc. has helped inspire a cottage industry of imitators, books that all seem designed to feed off the frustrations of the angry right. ("Liberal Fascism," by Jonah Goldberg, is the latest to hit it big.) But Coulter has a subspecialty all her own: uttering remarks so off the charts, so contrary to every norm of civil discourse, that they attract national news coverage. A few months ago she declared on TV that Jews need "to be perfected," and suggested that America would be better off if it were all Christian. Last week Coulter attacked her own party's presumptive nominee. John McCain, Coulter said, was a traitor to conservatives, so much so that she'd campaign for Hillary Clinton if he were nominated. Was there anything the Arizona senator could do, NEWSWEEK e-mailed her later, to change her mind? Would she really stump for Clinton? "I don't know," she wrote. Then she added: "McCain could invent a time machine, travel back in time" and take back all his liberal-leaning votes in Congress. "Short of that," she said, "the only thing that would work is if he put a gun to my head, but since McCain is also against gun rights, that's out." (McCain backed a measure to close a gun-show loophole on background checks, but is otherwise supportive of gun rights.)

As McCain draws closer to the GOP nomination, many leaders of the conservative movement have gone into convulsions. The biggest headline-grabber was Coulter, who, true to form, seemed to set a new low for immoderation. But that didn't stop a slew of other prominent hard-right pundits, most on talk radio, from trying to outrant her. Rush Limbaugh, the most popular right-wing radio host, had been railing against McCain for years, and now declared that if he were nominated, "it's going to destroy the Republican Party." "He's just a lousy senator and a terrible Republican," said Hugh Hewitt, another syndicated talk-show host. "His votes the past seven to 10 years have been on the wrong side of the issues." The revolt went beyond talk radio's political shock jocks. James Dobson, one of the nation's most prominent evangelical Christian leaders, declared he could not "in good conscience" vote for McCain and endorsed Mike Huckabee—the first time Dobson had ever taken sides in a GOP primary.

Other right-wing pundits counterattacked in what has become a case of a party's base bringing chaos out of order. Bill Bennett, the onetime drug czar and conservative Washington pundit who now has his own show, asked his fellow radio hosts to tone things down. "Who is he to say that?" retorted one of them, Michael Savage, who sometimes rivals Coulter in controversy. "He's got a minuscule audience and no credibility. If he wants to start some internecine war, then here we go: he's a blowhard." The uncivil war also pulled in some stalwarts of the GOP "base," such as Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "Rush is even ranting against me," Land tells NEWSWEEK. "I had the temerity to challenge the Great One in his all-knowing wisdom. Rush is underestimating the ability of Hillary or [Barack] Obama to unite conservatives around McCain. Rush says on air, 'Dr. Land, I'll tell you, I talk to 20 million people a day.' No he doesn't. He talks at 20 million people a day." (Limbaugh declined NEWSWEEK's interview request.) Does the Limbaughian view matter, really? The numbers suggest an apparent gap between the movement's leaders and rank-and-file conservatives. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, McCain holds a marginal lead among conservatives (49 to 43 percent) in a showdown with Huckabee. Seventy-six percent of all GOP voters and 69 percent of self-described conservatives say they would be satisfied with McCain as the GOP nominee. However, on Saturday, the first test since McCain became the presumptive nominee, Huckabee trounced McCain in the Kansas caucus, winning around 60 percent of the vote.

As the country learned anew in 2000 and 2004, every vote counts—especially every vote in states (like Ohio) where the margin of victory in a general election is likely to be narrow. If even a handful of conservatives were to follow the Limbaugh-Coulter line and stay home, it could make a real difference. McCain knows that, which is why he is moving to address the trouble to his right. Sens. Tom Coburn and Sam Brownback, widely respected among right-to-lifers, have been contacting prominent social conservatives, including many members of Congress, urging them to take a second look at McCain's record. Former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, a hero to fiscal conservatives and a frequent guest on Limbaugh's show, tells NEWSWEEK he "just finished a first draft of an open letter to Sean [Hannity] and Rush and Laura [Ingraham] and the other conservative talk-show hosts." Former senator Phil Gramm has been tasked with reaching out to lawmakers, as well as activists in the conservative movement. A senior McCain adviser, who didn't want to be named discussing internal strategy, says that Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of McCain's closest allies in the Senate, made a direct appeal last week to Hannity, the radio and TV host, who has railed against McCain in recent weeks. Meanwhile, that McCain adviser, and another who didn't want to be named for the same reason, confirm to NEWSWEEK that there has been tentative outreach to Limbaugh—though McCain himself has not been directly involved in that effort.

Reaching out, though, is not pandering. McCain tried that once, and it didn't work; he does not want to try it again. In 2000, he avoided hard questions about whether South Carolinians could fly the Confederate flag over their statehouse by invoking "states' rights"—an approach that backfired when George W. Bush won the primary. (He later reversed himself, saying his earlier decision had been motivated by politics.) He tried early in this campaign to make nice with social conservatives by reaching out to prominent evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, whom he'd called "agents of intolerance." But his wooing of the right alienated independents and moderates who liked his straight-talk image. By July, his campaign was virtually broke and his candidacy was written off.

Now McCain is "unwilling to bow and kiss the ring" of his antagonists, says one adviser, who didn't want to be named fanning any flames. (Regarding Coulter, another top McCain aide snorts—anonymously, for the same reason—"I don't care what she thinks.") Do their diatribes bother McCain? "I don't listen to them … I've never even met them," McCain says. "I don't even listen to Rush … I'm not a masochist." Asked if it wouldn't make his life simpler to call Dobson and seek common ground, McCain shrugs. "I know what it takes to unite the party," he says. He needs to put that knowledge into action, and fairly soon. It seems possible that the conservative movement—the dominant force in American politics since the Reagan Revolution—has become so dogmatic that it might choose purity over victory.

Conservatives have been here before. Twenty years ago, in 1988, they ultimately coalesced behind George H.W. Bush, who had run as a moderate in 1980 before moving rightward as vice president. Hard-core conservatives were never entirely comfortable with the senior Bush, but, presented with the possibility of a Michael Dukakis presidency, the activists chose to believe that Bush's conservatism was real. The question for them now is whether they will go to McCain's side as they did to Bush's in 1988. (By 1992, the right—including, for a time, Limbaugh—had grown unhappy with Bush, which hurt him in his failed re-election bid, first in the primaries against Pat Buchanan and then in the general against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.) According to surveys, McCain is competitive in head-to-head match-ups with Clinton and Obama, largely because he appeals to conservative Democrats and independents. Part of his pitch is that he can "reach out" (a phrase that Limbaugh, on his show last week, repeated disgustedly, imitating McCain's voice). Yet Democrats seem far more determined than Republicans to vote this year. They've turned out for primary and caucus voting in far greater numbers, and the new NEWSWEEK Poll shows less enthusiasm among Republican voters for McCain than there is among Democratic voters for Obama and Clinton. McCain can ill afford to continue to alienate an influential chunk of the Republican base if he wants to win. For now, he seems to be depending on aides to mend fences: respected conservatives such as Charlie Black, a former Reagan adviser, are quietly reaching out to critics. He's also counting on some of the anger to be diverted as the campaign shifts toward a battle with the Democrats.

McCain may, in fact, have a better sense of America's shifting political mood than his detractors. "More and more of us are independents," says pollster John Zogby. "More people are not wedded to a party, a candidate or an ideology." Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center says poll numbers show a small shift away from the GOP. About 34 percent of registered voters identified themselves as independents in 2007, up from about 30 percent in 2006, he says. That's the highest it's been since 1999, and almost all the slippage has been on the Republican side. Many in the Republican Party base, meanwhile, seem to believe it's still the same country it was a political generation ago—their country, in other words. "Conservatives are on the eternal search for a new Reagan," columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post last Friday. "They refuse to accept that a movement leader who is also a gifted politician is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon."

The senator's persona is bound up in his ethos of defiance and courage—the witty raconteur of the Straight Talk Express whose penchant for getting in the face of his critics dates back to his days as an antic troublemaker at the Naval Academy. Before his speech last Thursday to the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C., McCain told NEWSWEEK that he knew he'd probably be booed. (The admission came with a smile.) Privately, his aides worried about a full-scale walkout from the giant ballroom—or, even worse, people throwing things at the stage. "Tomatoes we are good with," said one McCain adviser, who didn't want to be named making light of a tense situation. "Rocks … not so much. Hopefully, they'll pat those folks down." There were no projectiles, but plenty of hoots, especially when McCain admitted he'd "made mistakes."

The hoots could be a problem. Coulter has a devoted readership, and Limbaugh and his peers have huge, loyal audiences (nearly 14 million at last count for Limbaugh), because they are saying things many conservative Americans want to hear. Gary Bauer, president of American Values, says: "Conservatives have been in a funk for a couple of years now for a variety of reasons, including disappointment over the 2006 elections. But the movement is alive and well, and I, for one, think the best days for conservatives are still ahead. Our philosophy is in tune with most Americans. It's significant that every candidate was trying to outdo the others in appealing to conservative voters." Lee Edwards, a Heritage Foundation historian who studies the conservative movement, agrees. "Most voters still support a limited government, a strong national defense and basic conservative ideas," he says. The reason the Republican nominee this year wasn't more conservative, he believes, is not a reflection of a move to the middle, but the lack of a strong and viable leader of that ilk: Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson were all fatally flawed.

In retrospect, McCain may have been saved by his campaign meltdown last summer, says Grover Norquist, another prominent conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform. "Had he stayed the front runner, the talk-show hosts would have had the opportunity to make a case against him," Norquist says. But they didn't realize he was making a comeback until New Hampshire and South Carolina, and "by the time they tried to make a case, it was too late."

Conservatives have long memories, and plenty of what they recall is painful. In the last decade or so, McCain has sinned mightily against right-wing orthodoxy. He cosponsored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which undermined a bedrock GOP belief that money is a form of free speech (and deprived conservative lobbying groups of influence); he joined the Senate's "Gang of 14," which forged a middle ground over the nomination of conservative judges, and he supported a compromise on illegal immigration. "McCain's apostasies are too numerous to count," wrote Krauthammer. "He's held the line on abortion, but on just about everything else he could find—tax cuts, immigration, campaign finance reform, Guantánamo—he not only opposed the conservative consensus but also insisted on doing so with ostentatious self-righteousness."

McCain's rise is the latest in a series of conservative disappointments (news that will surprise the many liberals who think the right has been running the country for seven years). "Conservatives are in open rebellion now," says longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie. "We've been treated shabbily by Republican establishment politicians. We've been treated like the proverbial country cousins. They'll invite us to the wedding but make us sit in the back. All that Limbaugh, Coulter, Savage and the others are doing is just reflecting what's happening at the grass roots. The Republican Party is in shambles. McCain is trailing among conservatives, and conservatives are the base of the Republican Party. Sure, he's getting the lion's share of moderate and liberal Republicans, but they make up only one third of the Republican vote."

No one knew this better than McCain himself as he strode to the podium of CPAC's annual meeting in the Omni Shoreham Hotel, a gathering that served as ground zero for the right-wing outrage last week. McCain had snubbed this convocation for years. But now the McCainiacs were growing worried that conservative Republicans would not rally on voting day and perhaps stay home. "The Republican Party needs to find its bottom," says conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck. "I'm an alcoholic. I understand what it means to bottom out. When you find your bottom—when you say, 'I can't live like this anymore, I can't live this lie'—that's when Republicans and conservatives will start doing some real soul-searching to determine what their values are."

McCain and his campaign know that the conservative uprising poses serious practical problems as well. A senior McCain aide, who didn't want to be named talking about the campaign's woes, cites the difficulty in fund-raising that the candidate faced a year ago when GOP critics targeted his compromise position on immigration reform. (McCain championed a bill with archliberal Ted Kennedy that would have allowed illegal aliens to participate in a worker-visa program. He later retreated.) Campaign donations quickly dried up—particularly among small donors, whose checks are looked upon as an indication of how much grass-roots support a candidate is getting. Aides privately worry that more barking from McCain's critics could create a similar scenario—a devastating financial blow in an election year when Republicans are already being outspent and outraised by Democrats. "We can get past people bashing us—even [George W.] Bush got some of that," says a McCain adviser, who declined to be named discussing internal strategy. "But if it starts affecting [the money], it's a problem." Coulter tells NEWSWEEK that she herself was "rather surprised at how ferocious and immediate the support was for my preference for Hillary over McCain on the Internet and in my In box. I thought it would take me a few more times at bat to explain my position fully. Oh no, no, no!"

It's no surprise, then, that McCain and his aides worked hard on his CPAC speech, in which he made the case that he was a "proud conservative" and was the only thing standing between conservatism and disaster. It was a direct appeal to the base. "I'm a Republican," McCain said six times in the speech, while his audience often sat on their hands. Despite polite cheers at the end, the crowd was unmoved. Matthew Bixler, a 22-year-old student at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, was one of those booing. "He was just playing to his audience," Bixler says, "talking about making tax cuts permanent that he didn't support in the first place. What kind of straight talk was that? I think he pandered to, if not even manipulated, this crowd." Justin Goins, 20, who also attends Liberty, says: "I just don't know how we could ever trust this man. Aside from being pro-life, he doesn't have much to go on in terms of how he's voted. How great is it that three different people had to come out before his speech and ask people not to boo?"

Still, the Omni Shoreham is not the Hanoi Hilton. John McCain is a man who has survived at least two near-death experiences: once as a prisoner in Vietnam, and a second time last summer, when he found himself abandoned and left for political dead by his party (before managing to revive his campaign almost single handedly). Last Thursday, McCain knew, it was not just he who was being cast aside. His right-wing critics were themselves getting dumped by his once bitter rival, Mitt Romney.

A few hours before McCain's speech, Romney shocked the crowd by saying he was bowing out of the GOP race. In the end, Romney hit on the one reason he knew would appeal: he could not leave the nation to suffer the calamity that a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama presidency would mean to the War on Terror. At least McCain, the arch-hawk on Iraq, would not allow that to happen. "They would retreat, declare defeat, and the consequences of that would be devastating," Romney told the CPAC gathering as his anguished supporters shouted, "No! no!" "In this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror." To soften up the enemy's defenses, McCain sent in a coterie of conservative allies, like Coburn and former senator George Allen, to make his case. At Friday's CPAC meeting, McCain got what may be the biggest boost of all: an implicit endorsement by President Bush, who, without mentioning McCain by name, told the CPAC faithful: "We have had good debates, and soon we will have a nominee who will carry the conservative banner into this election and beyond."

McCain has been directly involved in getting the endorsements of Allen—who had been supporting Thompson before he dropped out—and Ken Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee head who managed Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. Mehlman, who was previously uncommitted, announced his endorsement of McCain late Thursday. McCain had spoken to both men by phone in recent weeks, hoping to line up their support. A senior McCain aide, who also didn't want to be named discussing internal strategy, tells NEWSWEEK that campaign emissaries also talked to former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who had been supporting Thompson, and former senator Bob Dole, who has so far declined to endorse anyone in the race, citing his wife's Senate re-election bid in North Carolina. Dole has, however, defended McCain against attacks from Limbaugh.

McCain has also been doing major outreach on judges, reassuring conservatives that he'll deliver what for many of them is a key benefit of a Republican presidency. "I strongly supported John Roberts and Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court," he said in a statement to the Federalist Society. "I would seek men and women like them as my judicial appointees." In the conservative movement, says one GOP strategist who declined to be named while talking about private discussions, McCain's statement is being received as a "read my lips, no more Souters" pledge—a reference to Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who was thought to be a staunch conservative, but revealed more liberal views on the bench.

Even Coulter, whom many conservative politicos privately deride as an attention seeker, says she has been contacted by emissaries she won't identify. "Yes, I won't reveal private communications, but they were friendly on both sides," she says. "Behind the scenes, McCain's people are demanding that TV and radio banish me, so I guess I'm at least as likely to be audited by a McCain administration as a Clinton administration."

One of McCain's secret weapons appears to be Charlie Black, who is widely respected among Washington conservatives. Black had hoped to sit out this contest, but got involved when McCain appealed to him last year to help his troubled campaign. Since then, Black, along with other top McCain staffers, has labored free of charge. He's a regular at Norquist's weekly meetings and was once a board member of the American Conservative Union. Aides say he, along with Gramm, has been coordinating the outreach effort. While no promises have been made, some in McCain's camp have also been suggesting that the candidate's veep choice will go a long way toward assuaging the right, as will Black's likely role as the White House's "new Karl Rove." "Look, we know these people very well," Black tells NEWSWEEK. "A lot of us grew up in the conservative movement. We have a lot of conversations going on with different people."

But just as with his boss, there are times when Black doesn't sound entirely conciliatory. He believes that Limbaugh (whom he says he has known for 20 years) and others won't sit out the election, in spite of their threats. "It doesn't have to be unanimous until [the primary is] over," Black says. "When they understand … there's nothing else [they] can do, it's McCain versus Clinton or Obama, the huge difference will cause them to support McCain."

Even most of McCain's worst critics believe things will calm down. "Samuel Johnson once said that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully," says Hugh Hewitt. "Hillary and Obama are right over the hill; this might not just be a loss in 2008 but an exile for 16 years." Others, like National Review bloggers calling themselves Reaganauts for McCain, call for some perspective, reminding readers that right-wingers have long felt betrayed by the presidents they elect. "The Old GOP Establishment said terrible things, untrue things, about Ronald Reagan," the blog said. "Some in this new Establishment are also saying terrible and untrue things about another maverick conservative, John McCain."

Richard Land says the GOP will, in the end, do what it does best: unite. "I find it hard to believe that there are many conservatives who, when push comes to shove and they contemplate what it would be to have Hillary Clinton with the added pain of Bubba back in the White House, or Obama, that they won't eventually rally behind whoever the Republican nominee is as long as they are pro-life," says Land. "I don't want to minimize the impact of Limbaugh. He has influence. But there is a limit to where anyone can lead conservatives [if it's] where they don't want to be led."

Another conservative politico, Rich Galen, who worked for Thompson until he pulled out, argues that the Democrats are in far more trouble than McCain: "The lines are hardening between Hillary and Obama. It's going to go on for week after week. If you think fissures are bad there now, wait until Obama goes to the floor with more delegates, and the superdelegates come out for Hillary."

The talk-show brigade, however, is keeping itself relevant—and profitable—by continuing its tirade. "Part of this is a herd mentality," says Michael Medved, who claims he's the only talk-show host—liberal or conservative—to endorse McCain. "There are a bunch of talk-show hosts who wait to see what position Rush will take. They are the Mini-Me's to Rush's Dr. Evil." Medved and others suspect the right-wing rants are mainly a ratings grab. "The irony is that Limbaugh, by attacking McCain and having him win anyway, may end up with a larger audience because people that don't like McCain will rally around him," says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, the main trade journal for the talk-show industry. "The person who takes the unpopular view in radio often gets the biggest audience because so many other people are competing for the popular view. Limbaugh is the smartest man on the air. He is a brilliant broadcaster and a great talent … Hillary would be better for conservative hosts than McCain. They are all salivating over the hope that Hillary will get elected." If the conservative leaders keep at it, they just might make their hopes come true.

With Pat Wingert, Suzanne Smalley, Daniel Stone, Martha Brant And Matthew Philips