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John McCain Wins. But the Tea Party Didn't Lose.

John McCain had a very good primary election night on Tuesday, crushing the once-feared right-wing challenger J.D. Hayworth by a ­­­­24 percent margin. And there's not much secret to how he did it: In addition to benefiting from Hayworth’s own self-inflicted wounds, McCain dominated by turning away from some of his signature commitments from the past. Politico’s David Catanese nicely summed it up in a piece on the “heavy price” paid by McCain to win re-nomination this year:

Once the sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy—a stance that hurt him with conservatives—McCain moved in a different direction this year. He switched his emphasis this summer to border security, embraced Arizona’s controversial hard-line immigration law and, in an ad, called on the federal government to “complete the danged fence”—three years after dismissing the notion of a border fence in a Vanity Fair article titled “Prisoner of Conscience.”
Four years ago, McCain also told students he supported repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bans gays from serving openly in the military. But in May, the former war hero and Navy prisoner of war promised to filibuster any bill including that change that landed on the Senate floor.
He sidestepped the climate change debate this year despite once being a Senate leader on the issue and he’s even distanced himself from the term that once seemed central to his political brand—his “maverick” trademark.
Hayworth, the primary election opponent McCain has spent a small fortune pummeling as inept, corrupt and even stupid, has seized on the apparent contradictions.
“Mr. campaign finance reform ... the guy who used to lecture us about the evils of money ... thinks he’s going to buy off Arizona,” Hayworth told POLITICO. “Maybe it’ll work. Hey, they spent $20 million.”

McCain’s defenders would probably argue that he’s never been anything other than a “Goldwater conservative,” as he likes to call himself, and on some issues, that may be true. But there is no way to deny that the John McCain who gave the conservative movement a near-death experience in 2000 and then trod a genuine maverick path until at least 2004 is virtually unrecognizable in the senior senator from Arizona today.

Still, Catanese is off the mark in attributing this devolution to McCain’s battle against Hayworth. McCain has been moving rightward pretty steadily since at least the moment he decided to run for president again in the 2008 cycle. And in this metamorphosis, he has accurately reflected trends in his party.

Many observers, particularly liberals, have been shocked by the dramatic rightward march of the GOP since November 2008, with all its thundering against Barack Obama’s “socialism” and its outstretched hand to the virulently anti-government Tea Party movement (which is largely composed of faithful Republican voters). It’s not often, after all, that a political party reacts to two consecutive electoral calamities by moving further away from the political center.

Yet this shouldn't be a surprise. Well before 2008, it had become a deeply entrenched habit among “movement conservatives” to explain any Republican electoral failure as a result of the party's insufficiently rigorous featly to conservative ideology. And this is exactly how they interpreted the decline of George W. Bush and the congressional GOP after his 2004 re-election. At both the elite and rank-and-file level, conservatives quickly decided that Bush and Rove and DeLay had betrayed them. Consider this report from the Washington Post in early 2006:

Disaffection over spending and immigration have caused conservatives to take flight from President Bush and the Republican Congress at a rapid pace in recent weeks, sending Bush's approval ratings to record lows and presenting a new threat to the GOP's 12-year reign on Capitol Hill, according to White House officials, lawmakers and new polling data.
Bush and Congress have suffered a decline in support from almost every part of the conservative coalition over the past year, a trend that has accelerated with alarming implications for Bush's governing strategy.
The Gallup polling organization recorded a 13-percentage-point drop in Republican support for Bush in the past couple of weeks. These usually reliable voters are telling pollsters and lawmakers they are fed up with what they see as out-of-control spending by Washington and, more generally, an abandonment of core conservative principles….
"The problem in my mind, and the only way to explain the very significant erosion is just a disgust with what appears to be a complete abandonment of limited government," said former Republican congressman Pat Toomey, who runs the conservative Club for Growth. Toomey said commitment to smaller government has been the unifying idea for most elements of the GOP coalition since Ronald Reagan's presidency. "Republicans have finally had enough," he said, a sentiment echoed by several other conservative activists and lawmakers.

There was a temporary renewal of conservative support for Bush after the 2006 elections, mainly attributable to his decision to defy the electorate with a “surge” in Iraq (a policy heavily identified with John McCain, to his own benefit among conservatives). But in general, on the right, the belief only intensified that Bush had betrayed the cause by accepting and even advocating higher domestic spending. He had championed a larger federal role in education and health care (with his Medicare prescription drug benefit), while also engaging in a maddening effort to buy Hispanic votes with “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. All of these initiatives, of course, were part and parcel of Karl Rove’s efforts to build a Republican majority by placating the conservative base while strategically reaching out to key categories of swing voters. To conservatives, it looked like the swing-voter tail was wagging the conservative dog.

By the beginning of the 2008 cycle, the revolt was fully underway, a phenomenon disguised in part by the early prominence of well-known “moderates” Giuliani, Romney, and McCain in the presidential field. In reality, Giuliani was going nowhere; Romney had repositioned himself as the “true conservative” in the race; and McCain ultimately won through a perfect storm of his opponents’ mistakes and misfortunes. Still, McCain didn’t sound very “mavericky” during the primaries; he was already backing away from cap-and-trade, campaign finance reform, and comprehensive immigration reform, mainly emphasizing his championship of the Iraq “surge.”

It was during the general election, however, that the tension between McCain’s need for swing votes and ever-increasing pressure from conservatives to turn right reached its peak .In that context, his choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate made perfect sense: She was “mavericky” all right—as it would soon be phrased—yet she was also not only acceptable, but downright exciting to hard-core conservatives, particularly the right-to-life movement that essentially scuttled McCain’s hopes of picking Joe Lieberman. Then, during the campaign, when you might have expected McCain to take his conservative votes for granted while lusting after moderate independents, he instead turned even more noticeably to the right, framing his message around Joe the Plumber, attacking Obama’s tax proposals as an attempt to “spread the wealth,” and even dabbling in the ACORN conspiracy theory of the housing meltdown that was popular on the right-wing talk show circuit. Even that wasn’t enough red meat for conservatives, who at one point started shouting at McCain at his own rallies, demanding more talk about Obama’s “radical” associations and socialistic policy proposals.

Indeed, in every important respect, these were the birth pangs of the Tea Party movement. That movement obtained a distinct identity in early 2009, but it was fundamentally a cadre of conservative activists who had been radicalized during the traumatic experience of the 2008 campaign and its unhappy result. To conservatives, of course, it was no mere coincidence that even as McCain and Palin were going down to defeat, the Bush administration and its congressional allies were executing one final betrayal of the cause by proposing and helping to enact TARP and other “bailouts.” This sealed the GOP ticket’s fate, but just as importantly, rid conservatives of any sense of responsibility, political or moral, for Bush’s sins. With the inauguration of Barack Obama, conservatives were also freed from any responsibility to govern the country, and soon embarked on a two-front war against the new “socialist” administration and the “RINOs” who enabled it.

In all these developments, John McCain has been a richly symbolic figure, not least in how he achieved last night's victory over J.D. Hayworth. The standard-bearer of the GOP, who has been drifting rightward largely in synch with his party since at least 2008, decided to adopt wholesale the Tea Party rhetoric and issue positioning that has swept the Republican universe during the past year. McCain's win may be described by some of the less thoughtful pundits as a victory of the GOP establishment over the Tea Party movement. But, in reality, it represents Republicans' final surrender to conservative demands that date back for decades. In that respect, John McCain is not just the symbolic head of his party: He remains its leader in substance, having fully adopted the mores of a conservative movement that’s won its long cold war against what Barry Goldwater called “moderation in the pursuit of justice.”