Here's a Super Tuesday prediction: The loneliest place in America tonight is going to lie somewhere between the offices of the National Review and Townhall.com. That's because, if John McCain emerges tonight as the presumptive nominee of his party, as most polls suggest he will, history will regard Feb. 5, 2008, as the beginning of the end of the modern conservative movement, as embodied in William Buckley, Hugh Hewitt, and their band of merry players.
If you want to know where the Republican party is today, consider the man McCain appears poised to beat, Mitt Romney. Just a few short years ago, Romney was probably the most maverick, liberal elected official in the entire GOP. A blue-state governor who had won the endorsements of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition and the Log Cabin Republicans. Today, Romney has been remade, tailored to perfection, into the candidate of the far-right conservative movement. This transformation was thrust upon him by those who were convinced that Karl Rove's base-first (some might say base-only) theory of politics is still relevant. Romney should have been man enough to realize that Rove's influence now barely extends beyond the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages. The irony is, in this election year, the old Romney would probably be beating McCain.
You can also learn a lot about where the mainstream GOP is today by looking at what's going on in the states. Just three of the 22 Republican governors in America have endorsed Romney. That's a damning rejection. Just two years ago, Romney was chairman of the Republican Governor's Association. The Big Three—California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, Florida's Charlie Crist, and Texas's Rick Perry—are all with McCain. These party leaders understand better than any Washington pundit what's happening on the ground within the party. They are not with McCain by happenstance. Endorsements are coldly calculated political decisions.
The people who have driven—and profited from—the far right conservative movement's extraordinary influence within the Republican Party can hear this giant sucking sound. Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity can hear the sound of their ad revenues drying up. The far-right rags in Washington can hear it, too. Make no mistake about why you hear Limbaugh and Coulter saying they will back Hillary Clinton over John McCain: McCain will be bad for business. And their influence within the party, already damaged, will be even more severely marginalized. That is what is really behind the embarrassing, despicable attacks launched against McCain by once-respectable publications that have now just become a mockery of themselves.
The conservative movement now has a choice: It can either accept that the mainstream of the Republican party is no longer content with ruling by minority and forsaking the traditional, bedrock principles of Republicanism, most importantly fiscal restraint, in favor of divisive social wedge causes and big government. (Minus a handful of sentences, President Bush's 2008 State of the Union could have been delivered by FDR.) Or it can continue to watch the GOP lose elections. Some who wish to martyr themselves appear to be content with the latter. Others not. That is why you see the the neocon/far-right coalition falling apart. And Bill Kristol, for one, deserves kudos for getting the message. But, any way you slice it, there's no denying that the conservative movement we've known for the past eight years is in big trouble.