Tom Coburn has established himself as one of the Young Turks of conservatism on Capitol Hill, fighting pork and federal spending as well as establishing himself as a stalwart against abortion. Along with his Senate colleague Jim DeMint and House members Jeff Flake, Mike Pence, and Eric Cantor, Coburn has accumulated plenty of influence among angry conservatives looking to shake the GOP and have the party return to the first principles of conservatism. Today Coburn issues a call for this return in the Wall Street Journal, but he picks a leader that may have Coburn’s fans feeling some cognitive dissonance:

As congressional Republicans contemplate the prospect of an electoral disaster this November, much is being written about the supposed soul-searching in the Republican Party. A more accurate description of our state is paralysis and denial.

Many Republicans are waiting for a consultant or party elder to come down from the mountain and, in Moses-like fashion, deliver an agenda and talking points on stone tablets. But the burning bush, so to speak, is delivering a blindingly simple message: Behave like Republicans.

Unfortunately, too many in our party are not yet ready to return to the path of limited government. Instead, we are being told our message must be deficient because, after all, we should be winning in certain areas just by being Republicans. Yet being a Republican isn’t good enough anymore. Voters are tired of buying a GOP package and finding a big-government liberal agenda inside. What we need is not new advertising, but truth in advertising.

For most of his article, Coburn sings to the conservative choir. Yet at the end, he concludes with this paragraph:

John McCain, for all his faults, is the one Republican candidate who can lead us through our wilderness. Mr. McCain is not running on a messianic platform or as a great healer of dysfunctional Republicans who refuse to help themselves. His humility is one of his great strengths. In his heart, he’s a soldier who sees one more hill to charge, one more mission to complete.

Many conservatives would put McCain in the RINO category as well. Also, when reading the article, this paragraph feels as though it got added as an afterthought, as my friend Mark Tapscott put it. What was Coburn thinking?

It’s not difficult to understand Coburn’s reasoning. He believes that Republicans lost their way mostly on matters of fiscal discipline. Outrageous spending increases, abetted by runaway pork-barrel spending, destroyed Republican credibility on the first principle of conservatism: limited government. All other sins descend from this misstep. If the GOP feeds the federal government, then no one speaks for reductions in federal authority along any lines, and all manner of federal intervention becomes possible, even for the GOP.

In order to restrain the growth of federal government, the party needs a leader who has the best track record on fighting its expansion. In this case, that means John McCain, with at least one healthy caveat. Campaign-finance reform in the manner of the BCRA expands federal government into political speech in a manner that rejects limited government. Its impact on the speech rights of organizations during elections makes the federal government an arbiter of speech, a role that contradicts conservatism in a very fundamental way.

However, outside of that, McCain has long fought pork-barrel spending and bloated federal budgets. During the feeding frenzy between 2001-2006, McCain’s voice was left in the wilderness, warning about the consequences of the Republican majorities. Even his opposition to the last of the Bush tax cuts didn’t get based on a love of taxes, but in the refusal of the Bush administration and the Republican Congress to cut federal spending at the same time.

The big question: will this missive from Coburn help bridge the gap between McCain and conservative activists? As Coburn knows from personal experience, McCain is by far the one nominee who will work toward conservative principles in spending and limitation of federal power in the upcoming general election. The question for Coburn is whether he becomes the leader of the Republicans that keeps McCain on track with his pledges in other areas, notably border security. If Coburn can do that, he may find himself the next national leader for conservatives.