He’s a war hero. He has just captured the Republican presidential nomination, and the GOP base is riled up. “There is more than a personal battle that is going on here,” a New York Times writer observes. “The conservative wing of the party is fighting for its life.”
Conservatives think that their party’s new nominee is just too cozy with Democrats. Some question whether he is a real Republican. Indeed, four years earlier there was even talk of his running on the Democratic ticket. There is seething and gnashing of teeth. There is talk of sitting on hands come the fall.
Yes, Dwight Eisenhower had big problems with the Republican base in 1952. Worse, the GOP nominee faced these intra-party problems after the party’s fractured and joyless Chicago convention.
John McCain has bigger problems, but more time to deal with them. The Vietnam War hero and presumptive GOP nominee also has Ike’s commanding example of how to put a party back together again.
Eisenhower recognized it was not his intra-party opponents’ problem to solve. It was his. Successful presidential candidates unite and excite their parties. Unsuccessful ones don’t. It’s really the first test of presidential leadership.
Disaffected party activists have only two obligations: One is to keep an open mind about their nominee once the nomination battle is over. Two is to realize that general elections are about choosing between two candidates, not picking the perfect candidate, and that this choice should be based solely on what’s in the country’s best interest. In sum, they’re obligated to think clearly and exercise prudence.
They’re under no obligation to be motivated, which Republicans will need to be, especially if the Democratic nominee is Barack Obama and even if it is Hillary Clinton.
Eisenhower understood it was his job to motivate the Republican base. Indeed, he recognized this from the moment that Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft’s candidacy collapsed on the convention floor. Ike immediately called on “Mr. Republican” at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. After the convention, he instructed one of his chief supporters to stop “pouring salt in the wounds of the defeated.”
Grace and humility — repeated acts of grace and humility — will go a long way. McCain and his team should begin this work at once. Privately and publicly, he needs to reach out to Mitt Romney and the conservative personalities who opposed him. He should not let the irredeemable loudmouths — the Ann Coulters — keep him from taking the steps needed to shore up support among conservatives. He cannot afford to fall into the liberal trap of assuming the loudest, craziest yakkers represent conservatives. If they did, Romney would have done better on Super Tuesday. He needs to show his true respect for conservatives by doing all he can to win over the winnable.
Last Thursday’s Conservative Political Action Conference speech was a fine start. But the outreach cannot end there. One or two speeches, and a few publicized endorsements, won’t cut it this year. Maybe 1952, but not 2008. McCain will have to return to these conservative themes again and again to convince conservatives they’re part — maybe not the whole, but part — of who he is. He’ll have to pick a rock-solid conservative running mate. He’ll also have to show that he’s as comfortable taking on Democrats as he’s been taking on Republicans.
McCain will also have to be specific — say, detailed commitments on budget growth, immigration enforcement and the extension of tax cuts, a reconsideration of his embryonic stem-cell stand given the latest scientific advances.
WWID? What would Ike do? Actually, there’s a better question: What did Ike do?
In mid-September 1952, Eisenhower and Taft met at the general’s Morningside Heights residence in New York City. It wasn’t clear Taft would blow the bugle and enlist in Ike’s army; “Mr. Republican” wanted certain assurances on campaign and Cabinet personnel as well as on tax, budget and other policies. Over breakfast, Ike offered some minor changes to a statement Taft had drafted. Their final statement included the policy commitments but left out Taft’s conditions on the makeup of the Cabinet.
How successful was the Taft-Eisenhower pact? Well, both were criticized from all sides — conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and the Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson — for the “Surrender of Morningside Heights.” And, in a few short months, Taft was Senate majority leader and Eisenhower was president. Some surrender.
Obviously, the times are different. The situations aren’t exactly analogous. History seldom works that way. But there may be a message here for John McCain at this dicey moment: Be Like Ike.
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