The problem with self-identified independents, of course, is that most of them aren't. Even if voters chooses not to affiliate themselves with either of the two dominant political parties, they tend to "lean" towards one or the other. To be truly "independent" of either party in a two-party system, you must either vote for infeasible third-party candidates, or not vote at all. As Professor Matthew Baum of UCLA explains, "Cynicism is inversely related to political involvement. Those who vote tend to be ideologically driven. True independents are just not as politically active."
I think it would be more accurate for Mr. Ponnuru to say that conservatives shouldn't ask McCain to do anything that would compromise his standing with moderate and liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats whose votes he could conceivably lose to Hillary Clinton or Barak Obama.
The problem, of course, is that McCain doesn't have a problem with any of these groups. They are the ones that have put him where he is today as the presumptive nominee of the party. As I discussed in my blog posting way back in, er, last week, McCain won amongst self-identified conservatives in only 3 of the 28 states that had voted as of Super Tuesday (IL, NY, NJ), none of which he's likely to carry in the general election. Even after the exits of Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney from the race--leaving only the neopopulist Huckabee and the moonbat Paul as competitors--it seems that McCain still can't win the conservative vote.
Since Super Tuesday, we've had 3 more contests. In Louisiana, he lost the conservative vote to Huckabee, and although I can't find exit polling from Kansas or Washington, it seems safe to assume that he lost it in those states given that 75% and 74% of their voters, respectively, voted for someone who wasn't John McCain.
Commentators such as Mr. Ponnuru, Bill Kristol (and, seemingly, the whole staff at The Weekly Standard), and others seems to think that conservatives just need to suck it up and not make any demands of Senator McCain lest he lose the magical maverickness that makes him so scrumdiddlyumptious to "independents"...who are either just Republicans or Democrats with commitment issues, or people who will be voting for such candidates as Lydon LaRouche.
The better argument would seem to be that McCain should be a lot more worried about making the bloc of voters which he doesn't already have in his back pocket (that would be, say it with me now, the conservatives!) decide that they can actually trust him after nearly a decade of high profile love-ins with the most liberal senators in the land.
Many of these commentators keep alluding to the possibility of McCain being the only Republican who could conceivably get a solid percentage of the "independent" and crossover Democratic vote like President Reagan did in 1980. Just a couple of points on that theory:
- John McCain is no Ronald Reagan. Reagan was one of the most naturally gifted politicians of the modern age who also had the power of ideas, idealism, and solid policy solutions winding his sails (unlike other natural politicians who are just, as they say, empty suits, like Bill Clinton and Barak Obama).
- Reagan was running against one of the worst and most unpopular presidents of the modern age. McCain will suffer from his soon-to-be-former friends in the MSM trying to tie him at every turn to President Bush (who is very unpopular, but will, I suspect, actually get some grudging respect down the road...unlike Jimmy Carter).
- Reagan didn't lose the conservative vote. He convinced the "independents" and Democrats to vote for a conservative, not the other way around.