Conservatives' Love-Hate Relationship with John McCain

John McCain is a fiscal hawk. Even more than being a war hero, it's probably the single greatest quality that most conservatives love about the guy. If you've ever seen McCain step before a group of rock-ribbed Republicans and start railing away about pork-barrel projects and runaway spending, you know what I mean. There's something about talk of slashing government spending that makes conservatives go absolutely giddy, and McCain has the sort of pork-busting chops that few, if any, can match.

But as much as conservatives love McCain when it comes to matters of foreign policy or fiscal discipline, they squirm in their seats when he starts talking about other issues — like campaign finance reform. When McCain starts opining on what a success his bill (McCain-Feingold) has been and ranting against the FEC's unwillingness to close more "loopholes," the room gets quiet and tense, as if the senior senator from Arizona has just taken out a copy of the Constitution, laid it on the floor and begun jumping up and down on the First Amendment.

Obviously, another prickly subject for McCain among conservatives is immigration. In person, McCain argues passionately about the subject and makes a solid case for comprehensive reform — though it usually falls on plenty of deaf ears. Many conservatives have long since deemed McCain's immigration proposal "shamnesty," a derisive term meant to conjure up unfavorable comparisons with the dreaded Simpson-Mazzoli bill of 1986.

In one part of his brain, McCain must understand how much his stance on immigration puts him at odds with the base of his party. But it seems there's another part of McCain's brain that doesn't really have a clue just how deeply the issue cuts against him with conservative voters.

McCain gave a perfect example of this right brain-left brain dichotomy at a recent press conference. When asked what might help improve Republicans' prospects for the election this November, McCain listed off three things.

One was progress in Iraq. No quarrel there.

Another was getting President Bush to veto a pork-laden appropriations bill. "We just need to overall show our base that we can get spending under control," McCain said, "I am concerned that they might stay home because they're unhappy with our dramatically increased spending practices over the last six years." Giddiness.

The last item McCain cited was passing comprehensive immigration reform. Come again? If McCain is really concerned about conservatives staying home in November, how can he think that passing a comprehensive immigration bill, opposed by large numbers of conservative activists in districts all over the country, is something that will help improve Republican prospects? It makes little sense — unless McCain envisions a bill that is much more like the enforcement-first approach passed by the House than the one McCain voted for in the Senate.

That may turn out to be the case, but even if McCain goes on to vote for a tougher House-type proposal, conservatives will remember that when it came to immigration McCain's first instinct was to join forces with Ted Kennedy and produce a piece of legislation that was fundamentally out of touch with the majority of members in the base of the Republican party.

McCain is clearly gearing up to run for president, and he's probably concerned about alienating the largest and fastest growing minority voting bloc in the country. But to get the chance at the brass ring in 2008, McCain must first receive the blessing of Republican primary voters and caucus goers, and his position on immigration probably isn't going to help matters. Instead, it will only complicate his relationship with the base and add to the conflict felt by many conservatives who find McCain so perfect on certain fundamental issues, and so perfectly out of touch on others.