DALLAS -- John McCain has voted consistently in the Senate for the causes of
the Christian right. He has opposed
abortion rights, gun control and anti-discrimination laws protecting gays
and lesbians. He voted to convict
Yet the National Right to Life
Committee and Pat Robertson, the
right-wing evangelist, have bitterly
opposed him in the Republican primaries. Why?
Senator McCain asked himself
that question in his extraordinary
Virginia Beach speech the other day.
He answered: "Because I don't pander to them, because I don't ascribe
to their failed philosophy that money
is our message."
Money is our message. In that
memorable phrase Senator McCain
caught what has happened to the
conservative movement and the Republican Party.
Conservatives used to take pride in
themselves as the movement of
ideas. But the ideas that propelled
them to control of Congress are now
mostly stale or irrelevant.
Fighting Communism waned as a
theme with the crumbling of the Soviet Union and its allied regimes. The
budget deficit, decried by Republicans for so many decades, has been
transformed by President Clinton
into a surplus. Slashing taxes, as
Bush has learned to his
regret, is now viewed by most of the
public as a threat to present prosperity and future Social Security retirement benefits.
Without ideas in which they have
confidence, most conservatives have
focused increasingly on money as
the way to get the public to vote for
them. That is why they are so furious
at Senator McCain. His proposal for
campaign finance limits would take
away the overwhelming financial advantage they get from their affluent
The Republican Party has traditionally been the party of the well-to-do. But in the past its conservative
leaders -- men like Senator Robert
A. Taft -- were not so obsessed with
money. They had strong policy views
that they believed would persuade
Governor Bush has said that the
McCain campaign finance bill would
be "unilateral disarmament" by the
Republicans. He did not mean his
words this way, but what he really
seemed to be saying was that the
armament of the party these days is
not ideas but cash.
In the current issue of the liberal
biweekly The American Prospect,
John B. Judis describes how conservative luminaries set out to maintain
control after Republicans won the
House in 1994. Ideological lobbyists
like Grover Norquist of Americans
for Tax Reform met weekly with
Republican Congressional leaders
and business lobbyists. The aim was
to get so-called soft money flowing
from corporate political action committees. And it has flowed heavily
toward the G.O.P.
Soft money, which is money contributed to political parties, is not
regulated by current federal law as
is money given to candidates. The
legislation sponsored by Senator McCain and Senator Russell Feingold,
Democrat of Wisconsin, would bring
soft money under limitations.
"I have called for the reform of
campaign finance practices that
have sacrificed our principles to the
demands of big-money special interests," Senator McCain said in Virginia Beach. "I have spoken against
forces that have turned politics into a
battle of bucks instead of a battle of
ideas. . . . America is greater than the
accumulation of wealth, and so our
party should be."
In those words Senator McCain
sounded like Theodore Roosevelt decrying "malefactors of great
wealth." Indeed, he said at the end
that Republicans should be "the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the
party of special interests."
It may be that Senator McCain's
campaign crested in Michigan. His
losses in Virginia and Washington
make his prospects look bleak unless
he can pull off a miracle next week in
New York and California.
The odds against upsetting the
conservative powers that be were
always daunting. But in challenging
their money culture, and in particular what he called the Christian
right's "agents of intolerance," Senator McCain has had a powerful impact on our politics.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company