Goldberg thinks that a lot of the animosity toward McCain is really anti-Bush animosity:
According to many pundits, McCain won the Republican Party's "anti-Bush" wing, made up of moderates and independents. But this is largely a media-driven narrative imposed on a somewhat different reality. There is, in fact, a much broader anti-Bush sentiment in the party. The "right wing" of the GOP is suffering from a deep buyer's remorse of its own.
All I can say is: about goddamn time. Seriously, I understand why many conservatives thought that Bush was a real conservative back in 2000 -- I thought the "compassionate conservative" crap was election-year hooey. Well, I was wrong, much to my regret. Jonah is wrong when he implies that conservatives haven't jumped ship -- in fact, quite a few conservatives have turned on Bush. (As a libertarian, I don't really count, but I've certainly turned on him.) By any objective measure, George W. Bush is not a conservative, and his presidency has erased nearly all the gains of the conservative movement for the last thirty or so years. Democrats are going to be running against George W. Bush for the rest of my lifetime. Conservative should be attacking George W. Bush at every opportunity, not backing the guy up.
So why haven't conservatives jumped ship in greater numbers? Well, I think that there are a number of overlapping reasons.
First, many conservatives remained honestly convinced that the Iraq war, while possibly mishandled, was a necessary step in the War on Terror. Now, I think, in retrospect, that the war was a huge mistake which has cost both lives and treasure, and which has been tactically counterproductive. Now, if you believe that the war wasn't a mistake, you are far more likely to see Bush as a source of steadfast leadership.
Second, there is the issue of judges. While the Harriet Miers nomination garnered a lot of conservative pushback, most conservatives are pretty happy with Roberts and Allito, as well as the bulk of the lower court judges. This is important to conservatives, because they fear -- with some validity -- that lunatic far left judges will attempt to advance the leftist agenda through the courts if allowed to do so.
Third, Bush has the right enemies. Goldberg discuses this particular point in contrasting Bush and McCain. As he puts it:
In terms of body language, the contrast with McCain couldn't be more stark. Bush has always been the sort of politician who relishes being loathed by The New York Times. McCain simply loves being loved by the Times and the national media generally. It's his base.
Add to that the folks over at DailyKos, Moveon.org, the 9/11 Truthers, the people from that town in Vermont who want Bush arrested. Whatever his other faults, Bush pisses off the right people. I think many conservative have a feeling that since the left hates Bush with such passion, he cannot possibly be all bad.
Fourth point -- related to the third -- is that support for Bush is part of being on "our team." Conservatives have historically found themselves at home in the Republican Party. They've come to identify with the Republican Team, they way some folks like the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees. Democrats, of course, have similar propensities: they identify with members of the Democratic Team, regardless of policy. If Bush had done all the same things but been a Democrat, lots of "convservatives" would hate his guts. Likewise, if Bill Clinton had been a Republican, many conservatives would love him.
Finally, I will add a factor I wouldn't have even considered before this primary season. Bush is an Evangelical Christian. I think the success of Huckabee shows that quite a few Evangelicals aren't "conservatives" in the William F. Buckley sense of the term -- they're not principled adherents to conservative ideology. They're cultural conservatives on things like the Ten Commandments, gays, porn, abortion, and other hot button cultural issues. But, they're not so big on limited government and free markets. For that kind of "conservative," well, Bush is great. He's an apostate on the stuff they don't care about, but he stands firm on the culture war issues. Evangelical Christians care a about a candidate's overt and stated faith. Because Bush claims to pray all the time and imbues his speeches with God Talk, they think he's doing the right thing. He's got faith, after all! He could do the opposite of what he's done on most issues, and if he talked about God enough, that would be enough for the Evangelicals. They support Huckabee for the same reason: he's one of them. He has faith.
McCain as the nominee will get the support of many conservatives, despite his apostasy on some issues, for some of the same reasons Bush has. Certainly many conservatives will back him on War-On-Terror issues, and he will probably appoint pretty good judges (from a conservative viewpoint). And as the election nears, the whole "our team" thing will kick in. Paradoxically, if his love affair with the media ends before the election rolls around, many conservatives will probably like him better, because he will have at least some of the right enemies.
What he will never get, though, are the solid core of Evangelicals who still support Bush and who now support Huckabee. They are identity politics voters, and McCain just isn't one of them.