I attended the Council for National Policy meeting last week in New Orleans and listened to John McCain address the who's who of Hillary Rodham Clinton's vast right-wing conspiracy. It was another chance for McCain to, in his words, "not just unite, but reignite the base."
How did the crowd think he did? Let's just say it's hard to ignite anything with cold water and no fire.
He talked about two legs of the Republican stool - spending/taxes and national security. But the third leg - social issues - went unmentioned. When questioned, he failed to connect with the people who care as much about why you vote the way you do as about how you vote.
The vast majority of the people at the meeting and in the conservative movement will vote for McCain. I will. But will the people who make up the backbone of the get-out-the vote effort go to work for him?
Only if he demonstrates that his vaunted pragmatism and open-mindedness will lead him to different positions on some issues.
Consider immigration and the extension of the Bush tax cuts. McCain says he "got the message." He's accepted the political reality of the need to secure our borders first and not increase people's taxes in a slow economy. That's great, but these conservatives are less interested in conversions based on politics than in decisions based on sound policy.
On other issues, more than better explanations will be needed.
McCain has opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment in the past because he said states could handle the assault on marriage. Have they? No. Although some state courts have sided with the voters' wishes in their states, courts in other states have forced same-sex marriage and civil-union laws on the public. A hodgepodge of laws is forcing other state courts to rule on the divorces of Massachusetts marriages and the breakups of civil unions from the nine states that permit them. It's an alternative route to forcing same-sex marriages and civil unions by making other state courts recognize these unions.
We also have gained a better understanding of the consequences of court ordered same-sex marriages. In Massachusetts, some public schools have introduced a fairy tale in which a prince marries another prince as part of a lesson on marriage - for second-graders. One superintendent said the district was "committed to teaching children about the world they live in." Interesting.
McCain, who recently supported a state constitutional amendment favoring traditional marriage in Arizona, needs to take these changes into account and outline a strategy that pushes some form of Federal Marriage Amendment or sets forth the conditions that would prompt his call for the amendment.
McCain also has been a proponent of capping carbon emissions to stop global warming. Yet last year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the environmentalists' gold standard, dramatically scaled back its doom-and-gloom predictions. At the same time, hundreds of respected scientists went public to question the validity of man-made global warming.
If the science is changing, so are temperatures. Yes, 1998 was the warmest year since 1938, but every year since has been cooler, and we just learned that 2007 was the coldest year since 1966.
Let's put these inconvenient truths aside and assume man-made global warming exists. The fact is, McCain's legislation would cost hundreds of billions and have almost no effect on global temperature.
In his New Orleans speech, McCain asked what was wrong with investing in green technologies, reducing fossil-fuels consumption, boosting Earth-friendly energy alternatives and creating a cleaner environment. Nothing. Count me in. But his global-warming legislation does much more than that and would hurt the U.S. economy. At the very least, McCain should require full global participation - China and India - before the United States implements these climate-change initiatives.
New science also has upended the debate over federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. It is now clear that the pursuit of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research is not only unnecessary, but with the advent of embryonic-like adult stem cells, it is now counterproductive, since it would displace money for more promising research. One of the scientists responsible for recent adult stem-cell advances predicted an end to our stem-cell wars. As James Thompson told the New York Times: "A decade from now, this will be just a funny historical footnote."
When McCain voted to support federal research that destroys human embryos, things were different. The science - and the moral components of the debate - have changed. Can he?
Social conservatives see all three issues as moral issues. Yes, even global warming. Why? Because too many global-warming zealots appear to worship the creation instead of the Creator and view man and his actions as only suspect disrupters of nature.
I've known John McCain for almost two decades. Honor and integrity underlie everything he does. I can testify it's hard to persuade him that there is another way when he believes he has taken the honorable position. He is stubborn in the best sense of the word.
Conservatives are not asking him to execute a series of 180s. We're looking for policy adjustments that show he has the independent spirit and pragmatic sense to change prior stands not simply because of new political realities, but new facts. Facts - which, as Ronald Reagan used to say, are also stubborn things.