Sen. John McCain's presidential candidacy has "fatal problems," says David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, the country's oldest and largest conservative grassroots lobbying group.
While he keeps a low profile, Keene is a bulwark of the conservative movement. Since 1984, he has headed the one-million-member ACU. The ACU runs the Conservative Political Action Committee's (CPAC) annual conference in Washington and publishes an annual Rating of Congress, the gold standard for ideological assessments of members of Congress.
Political leaders like Karl Rove routinely consult Keene. He knows all the Republican candidates personally. In addition, as second vice president of the National Rifle Association, Keene will automatically move up to first vice president and then become president of the politically powerful NRA in four years.
"I can be proven wrong, but McCain is dying a slow political death right now," Keene tells me over lunch at BLT Steak in Washington. "There are a number of reasons for that. On the right, he's simply not trusted, doesn't have credibility. He is not a small government conservative, and that's the basic underlying problem."
McCain's second problem, Keene says, is that he has "never come to grips with the kind of candidate he was and the kind of candidate he has to be. He's almost schizophrenic about it."
McCain's third problem is that his early frontrunner status attracted a lot of support because he was thought to be the inevitable winner.
"The problem with that kind of support is when you no longer appear to be the inevitable winner, that support drains away," Keene says. "In the process, he's built up a campaign organization that's sort of like the Spanish Armada. It can't move, and half the admirals aren't sure that the battle is going to be won anyway. So given that — and you can see his frustration personally when he's out there — I think he'll be the first of the big ones to fade."
From a conservative perspective, each of the other candidates has strengths and weaknesses, Keene observes.
"Fred Thompson was a sort of a workmanlike conservative senator, except he was soft on trial lawyers, and he was enamored of McCain on campaign finances," Keene says. "One can argue that's a lot easier drawback to get around than Rudy's Giuliani's positions on abortion, guns, and gay marriage. So you can argue that Thompson is a conservative and can certainly see the light on the other things. He hasn't evinced a hostility to the First Amendment in the way McCain has," a reference to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
"The other knock on Thompson is he doesn't like to raise money," Keene says. "But if you're a viable candidate, people are going to raise the money."
Keene says Thompson has a reputation for being lazy, but he doesn't know if he is or not. In the Senate, Thompson griped about the long, unpredictable hours and is remembered for no major accomplishments.
"I do know that being lazy is tough for a candidate, but we could probably use a lazy president," he says with a laugh. "Lazy presidents have never really gotten us in much trouble."
Keene has met with Mitt Romney and says he has found him to be a "bright and a very engaging guy." Romney has "a tremendous story of success," he says. "He has integrity. He may well be everything that he's touted to be by supporters, but nobody really knows that. And that's been both a strength and a weakness. It's a strength because if you can write on a blank slate for the whole public, that's better than McCain or Hillary Clinton, who can't write on a blank slate. They can't change what's already there."
But, Keene says, "When you press Romney on ideological questions, he falls back on how he's a businessman and will consolidate government agencies to reduce spending."
As Keene told Romney: "We're really not so interested in a CEO that will run the company well. We're interested in the CEO who knows where he's going to take the company."
That is the critical question in Keene's mind.
"I have no reason to believe that his values aren't the same as mine or any other conservative's," he says. "But I don't know that, and he hasn't been able to convince people of that."
Giuliani enters the race as a celebrity, Keene observes.
"He's sort of bigger than life in a lot of ways, stirs up a crowd," Keene says. But Giuliani has several problems.
"The generic problem is that he's from New York, and candidates based in New York have always had some difficulty selling themselves in the rest of the country," Keene says.
The fact that Giuliani didn't think the concerns raised about Bernard Kerik before he named him police commissioner were enough to torpedo Kerik's appointment suggests a New York attitude that the rest of the country may not buy.
"Probably in Iowa, people are saying that only in New York would somebody say that wasn't important," Keene says. "That reminds people that he was New York City's mayor, not America's mayor."
In addition, "The baggage he carries on social issues and the baggage he carries on personal issues mean he's got some real problems," Keene says.
Keene was born in Rockford, Ill., in 1945 and grew up in Wisconsin. Both Democrats, his father was a labor union organizer and his mother was president of the international auxiliary of the United Auto Workers. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1967 and from its law school in 1970.
Keene's first political activity was handing out literature for John F. Kennedy in the Wisconsin primary in 1960. But in 1964 he joined Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative organization. He then quit school temporarily and campaigned for Barry Goldwater for president.
Keene changed his views after reading F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, a classic that lays out a philosophy of freedom.
"The reason I read it was because it was banned from our school library," Keene says. "They had ordered it thinking it was about the Constitution, and it wasn't, but the librarian knew I was interested in political philosophy and stuff so she gave it to me. That was my introduction to conservative politics, by reading a banned book."
Keene was one of the first conservatives to object publicly to the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Last Oct. 17, just before Miers' confirmation hearings, he wrote in The Hill, "From now on, this administration will find it difficult to muster support on the right without explaining why it should be forthcoming. The days of the blank check have ended because no thinking conservative really wants to be part of a team that requires marching in lock step without question or thought, even if it is headed by the president of the United States."
In fact, when the first opening on the Supreme Court came up, a friend of the Bushes asked the president about the possibility of nominating Miers, then White House counsel. At the time, Bush rejected the idea, saying it would look too much like "cronyism" because Miers was so close to him.
"The guy who would've understood immediately the problem was Rove, but at that time he was not only being pressured by Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor on the Valerie Plame case, but he had a very serious kidney stone episode. So he was off his game at best and distracted totally at worst, and as a result the questions that might have been asked weren't asked," Keene says.
Keene says George Bush has been "as good as Reagan" on taxes.
"That's the single best thing that he's done," Keene says. "But that's half the equation. What did he do on the spending side?"
Meanwhile, "Congress in the 1990s became enamored with power and forgot why they got here," he says. "Remember they got here by campaigning against the excesses of the Democrats, by saying that business as usual was not the way the government ought to be run, by suggesting that we ought to get back to basic values. And then they got here and concluded that the only way they can stay here is by adopting the very things they had said they were against."
In addition, "The signal failure of the conservative movement has been that while it was celebrating its successes, it was not socializing and educating the new people into the old values—limited government, a strong country, and an adherence to basic traditional American values."
What followed was an explosion in earmarks — congressional pork barrel projects — that continued until the last election.
To be sure, Keene says, "Reagan was not always pure, no politician is." And, unlike the Democrats, Bush understands the terrorist threat faced by America and how it must be fought.
"Fifty years from now, Bush may be reassessed," Keene says. "Every president goes through that. Now Harry Truman is considered a great president. If you asked the man on the street in 1952 what they thought of Harry Truman, they would have said he was worthless. I mean he had a popularity rating that makes Bush look good."
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