McCain consolidates support among House Republicans while Rove dishes

Karl Rove writes about John McCain’s personal life in the Wall Street Journal, while the New York Times analyzes his efforts to build a general-election foundation among Congressional Republicans. Surprisingly, the NYT paints McCain in a positive light, while Rove’s salutory column tries to focus on character, to middling effect. It seems a bit like gilding the lily:

When it comes to choosing a president, the American people want to know more about a candidate than policy positions. They want to know about character, the values ingrained in his heart. For Mr. McCain, that means they will want to know more about him personally than he has been willing to reveal.

Mr. Day relayed to me one of the stories Americans should hear. It involves what happened to him after escaping from a North Vietnamese prison during the war. When he was recaptured, a Vietnamese captor broke his arm and said, “I told you I would make you a cripple.”

The break was designed to shatter Mr. Day’s will. He had survived in prison on the hope that one day he would return to the United States and be able to fly again. To kill that hope, the Vietnamese left part of a bone sticking out of his arm, and put him in a misshapen cast. This was done so that the arm would heal at “a goofy angle,” as Mr. Day explained. Had it done so, he never would have flown again.

But it didn’t heal that way because of John McCain. Risking severe punishment, Messrs. McCain and Day collected pieces of bamboo in the prison courtyard to use as a splint. Mr. McCain put Mr. Day on the floor of their cell and, using his foot, jerked the broken bone into place. Then, using strips from the bandage on his own wounded leg and the bamboo, he put Mr. Day’s splint in place.

Don’t get me wrong; Rove relates compelling stories about McCain’s character, but McCain’s character hasn’t been called into question. No one doubts the fortitude of his inner strength and the service he did on behalf of his country. Other POWs have already come forward to speak to his courage, his tenacity, and his defiance that enabled others to survive. These stories add to the narrative, but they don’t really add to the argument for his election, which is what Rove tries to do here. Rove may also be the wrong messenger for this column; a fellow POW would have been more appropriate.

The Times makes a better case, ironically. In their analysis today, they look at the way McCain has begun to influence House Republicans back towards fiscal conservatism, and note that McCain outlasted the previous GOP leadership that went to war with him:

The McCain campaign and House Republicans, in an effort coordinated by Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the party leader, are engaging in a bit of therapy to strengthen their political marriage. Top McCain officials gathered recently with chiefs of staff to House Republicans to emphasize the idea that it is to their mutual advantage to pull together as the election unfolds.

Mr. McCain has reached out more to the House leadership. Republican officials say that Mr. Boehner sought and received assurances from Mr. McCain in a private meeting in February that he would not ignore the interests of his backers in the House when pushing his policy ideas. ….

But it was not always that way. There was no love lost between the former speaker, J. Dennis Hastert; the majority leader, Tom DeLay; and Mr. McCain. Much of it was because of the senator’s push for campaign finance changes, a crusade that Mr. Hastert considered a betrayal and led him to question publicly whether Mr. McCain was in fact a Republican.

Mr. McCain also liked to ridicule Congressional earmarks, the pet projects on which Republicans were feasting. And he led a Senate investigation into the bilking of Indian tribes by the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a source of great embarrassment and trouble for Mr. DeLay and other Republicans. …

Republicans acknowledge that Mr. McCain often annoyed them in the past and that he sometimes seemed to take contrary views just to be contrary. But they also note that Mr. Hastert and Mr. DeLay are gone and that Republicans are trying to regain their credibility on spending restraint. Opposition to earmarks has gone from being a fringe Republican position to one the party is promoting.

That doesn’t mean that a love fest has broken out on the Mall. Republicans are still wary of McCain’s tendency to hammer his allies harder than his opponents, in public and private. While they have grudgingly adopted earmarks as an issue for 2008, the caucus has not gone anywhere near as far as McCain has, and they’re not likely to uphold McCain vetoes on appropriations with earmarks. They also stand ready to fight any immigration reform that doesn’t start with border security and rigid enforcement of employment laws.

However, the House Republicans understand what many still do not, which is that McCain gives the GOP their best chance of hanging onto the White House and dividing power in Washington for the next two years. Thanks to a series of retirements, the prospects of gaining control of the House look more difficult, and the Republicans will be lucky not to lose five seats in the Senate in November. Given the poor economy and the mood for change, McCain’s independent streak allows him to argue that he represents the real opportunity for change, not the Senator from Illinois who has yet to challenge his party on any significant issue.

Conservatives can find points of agreement with McCain on fiscal discipline, taxes, and national security — and several points of principled opposition, such as on global warming and energy policy, immigration, and the poisonous debacle of the BCRA. What they can’t dispute is that the opposition would be exponentially worse on all of these points of disagreement, and even more so on fiscal discipline, taxes, and national security. The Democrats want to add hundreds of billions of dollars to the federal budget, kill economic growth with spectacularly stupid capital-gains tax hikes, and put us in full retreat in the war on terror.

If McCain can get the House Republicans to start acting like, well, Republicans on fiscal discipline, then his candidacy has had at least that positive impact. It could bode well for November, especially with the Democrats veering sharply towards populist, hard-Left policy. That’s the real choice voters will have after the convention, not pining for Republican nominees that might have been.  Will that choice be stark enough for conservatives in the general election?