It's a myth that Senator John McCain lost in 2008 because conservatives didn't rally around him. As Michael Medved pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, McCain actually gained more conservative votes than George W. Bush did against John Kerry, and even more than Ronald Reagan did against Jimmy Carter. It was among independents that McCain lost.
Still, the myth perpetuates, mostly because people want to believe it. Conservatives, like myself, want conservatism to "win". We believe in the cause and in the principles, and when it comes to the presidency, we want the best, most conservative president we can get. The difference between myself and most conservatives is I believe Mitt Romney is that man and others believe he's the McCain of myth; to wit, a candidate too moderate to draw enough conservative votes to win. What they should worry about is nominating the McCain of reality, i.e. someone who will lose independent voters. As in 2008, it seems they are about to do just that.
There are quite a few similarities between this election and the last one. The volatility of the polls is one, of course. Some of the same players are around, particularly Romney and Ron Paul. And there's even a Republican lawmaker from the 80's and 90's with a history of compromising with Democrats, committing "heresy" on issues like immigration and education reform, having multiple wives, and narrowly avoiding being ejected from Congress for ethics violations. In 2008, it was John McCain; now, it's former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich has far more in common with McCain than Romney does. Neither of them has ever run a business or a state. Their accomplishments have all been legislative, and usually the result of compromising with Democrats on important issues. McCain compromised with Sen. Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform, with Sen. Joe Lieberman on cap-and-trade, and with Sen. Ted Kennedy on immigration reform. Not only has Gingrich sparked controversy by being (seemingly?) willing to compromise on each of those issues himself, but he also reached several compromises with President Bill Clinton that, while they averted a prolonged government shutdown and ultimately led to a balanced budget, would seem to be inconsistent with some of the compromises he's urged lawmakers today to not make. Granted, Romney made a few compromises while governor of Massachusetts, but that was with a veto-proof Democratic majority in the legislature. He still managed to govern more conservatively than even the Republican governors who came before him in office.
Both McCain and Gingrich have seen their political careers suffer near-misses on ethics charges. With McCain, it was the Keating Five scandal. Though he was never charged, he was criticized by his colleagues for using "poor judgment" in the affair. For Gingrich, it was 84 ethics scandals, most of which didn't receive a full hearing, but which did result in an official sanction and his own admittance that he had acted inappropriately. His Speakership was in jeopardy afterwards, and especially following his failed attempt to impeach President Clinton. Eventually, he resigned, the first Speaker to do so under such circumstances.
Both McCain and Gingrich were considered likely candidates for the nomination until their campaigns imploded over the summers before the primaries officially began. Both implosions were due to their "heresies" of which both had to publicly repent before voters would start leaning towards them again. For McCain, it was the above-mentioned immigration reform bill that ultimately failed. After it did, he "flip-flopped" and said that he "now knew" that any reform must begin with securing the border. For Gingrich, it was his oft-cited flip-flop on Congressman Paul Ryan's Medicare reform proposals that Gingrich once termed "rightwing social engineering", but now claims to support (kind of). They both had skeleton campaigns after the summer and have both had to claw their ways back to the top, with debates and strong numbers in New Hampshire being central to the health of their candidacies.
The other thing both needed to survive is for the electorate to reject Romney's candidacy. There was good reason to believe it would in '08, given that the idea was to elect someone who could win the Iraq War and Romney had no military record at all. This year, though, the hope is that Romney will not be seen as conservative enough for Tea Party voters. Bizarrely, given Gingrich's history, he's seen as less of a McCain than Romney is, despite the fact that Romney has never been sanctioned or even reprimanded by Congress, never been divorced, never been part of the establishment (despite all narratives to the contrary), and despite his exceedingly impressive executive experience.
One more thing Gingrich shares in common with McCain: he'll have a much harder time wooing the center than Romney would. In '08, the center could have gone either way; and it did. Virtually en masse, they liked Barack Obama better than McCain. They liked how he presented himself in the debates, his promises of "hope and change", how he handled the economic crisis, and, above all, how he promised to not be the second coming of George W. Bush. This year, independents know better, and they're looking for someone who can undo the mess Obama has made. Romney can do just that, and people know it. They know no such thing about Gingrich, and what they do know of him, they don't seem to like very much. Former Sen. John Danforth of Missouri wrote an excellent summation of why he and other center-right voters should elect Romney president. You'll not find that kind of moderate support for Gingrich any more; just like you didn't see it for John McCain.
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