Sen. John McCain is no conservative. He opposed the Bush tax cuts. He sponsored the greatest lasting crackdown on political speech in American history with campaign finance reform. He allies himself with radical environmentalists. He’s an open-borders advocate on immigration. He voted against the constitutional amendment to protect traditional marriage. He cobbled together the Senate’s Gang of 14, which stifled the appointment of strict constructionists to the federal bench. His pro-life rhetoric is lukewarm at best.
And he’s almost certainly going to win the Republican nomination.
He’s going to win the Republican nomination because no real conservative with a palatable image emerged from the GOP field. Rudy Giuliani is socially liberal, with enough skeletons in his closet to frighten Tim Burton. Mike Huckabee is all over the map on fiscal and foreign policy, and he’s easily pilloried as a religious bigot.
And what of Mitt Romney, the man who best represents the policy preferences of the conservative base?
He’s simply boring. Romney’s biggest problem is that he’s a beige businessman, a slick-haired corporate higher-up widely perceived as a flip-flopper. Romney joked on Jay Leno that “at the end of the day, just to really relax, I take off a dark suit … and put on a light one.” It’s a funny line, but it carries a grain of truth: Romney seems like a bureaucrat rather than a regular Joe.
Unfortunately for Romney – and for political conservatives – politics is about more than policy prescriptions. It’s about cultivating a winning image, creating a style that appeals to Americans. And Romney doesn’t even have enough appeal for the hard-core conservatives who vote in presidential primaries. Despite McCain’s long list of liberal bona fides, he won 27 percent of self-described conservatives in the Florida primary, as compared with Romney’s 37 percent.
What’s McCain’s appeal? His style. If Romney has the policies conservatives want, McCain has the image conservatives want. Though Romney is a Washington outsider, he looks like a Washington insider. And though McCain is a Washington insider, he has played his outsider, “maverick” image to the hilt. Though Romney has been more consistent on policy than McCain, it is McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” that draws support, not Romney’s private sector experience.
Conservatives are understandably upset with the prospect of a McCain candidacy. But they should recognize that if Romney’s stylistic drawbacks are severe enough to sink him in an election where most of the constituents agree with him on policy, his personal shortcomings will cripple him in a general election.
It’s not too late for Romney. As the last few weeks have proved, voters tune in late. That means that Romney can still change his image. He needs to muss his hair, don a flannel shirt and a pair of jeans, grab a photographer and go dig a hole somewhere. Americans don’t appreciate candidates who won’t get their hands dirty – literally. Teddy Roosevelt once advised William Howard Taft, “Photographs on horseback, yes; tennis, no. And golf is fatal.” Romney looks as though he’d be far more comfortable playing tennis or golf at a yacht club than riding a horse. And that hurts him.
John McCain, the only cowboy left in the Republican field, is the beneficiary. Unless Romney brings out his rustic – and personable – side now, McCain will be the only Republican left standing, period.