STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The likely Republican nominee for president misses few chances to say he favors a conservative agenda, yet some conservatives have trouble getting used to John McCain as their candidate. This week on MORNING EDITION, we'll be asking where the conservative movement is going next. And we begin with a man whose organization provides lawmakers with a basic conservative credential.
Year after year, the American Conservative Union picks key votes and rates lawmakers on a hundred-point scale. If you hear that Senator McCain has a lifetime rating in the 80s, that's where the number comes from.
But David Keene, the chairman of this umbrella group for conservatives, notes that last year McCain's ratings slipped into the 60s.
Mr. DAVID KEENE (Chairman of the American Conservative Union): We view that if a member of Congress gets an 80 or above, then he's a conservative. So in terms of his lifetime rating, John McCain would rate on the lower level of what we would consider to be conservative.
INSKEEP: And now you think with a rating of 65, he's not conservative at all?
Mr. KEENE: We don't consider him conservative. His ratings don't reflect that he's conservative, but I do have to give you this caveat. John McCain is not a liberal. His problems are on specific issues of great concern to conservatives over the years. In different years, his votes on the Bush tax cuts, for example...
INSKEEP: He voted against those tax cuts in 2001.
Mr. KEENE: Yes, but and I don't think that when conservatives look at John McCain, it is simply his voting record. It's more than that that has caused problems. And for a long time, his position and the position of his staff was that he didn't have a problem with conservatives. He had a problem with some inside-the-beltway conservative leaders. But I think if he's learned anything from the primary process, it has to have been that his problem is not inside the beltway. His problem is with Republican primary voters who describe themselves as conservative.
INSKEEP: Even though he won?
Mr. KEENE: He won, but he won early on because he was running down the middle and he had Romney and Huckabee splitting the conservative vote. Today, he's still only getting 55, 58 percent of the vote, which means there are a lot of people out there who are not yet comfortable of the idea of John McCain as their party's standard bearer.
INSKEEP: We know that John McCain got in trouble because he supported immigration changes, immigration reforms that included a way to citizenship for illegal immigrants, what was described by many as amnesty.
Is the Republican party still having trouble figuring out collectively where they stand on this issue, though?
Mr. KEENE: I don't think Republican voters are. I think that the Republican Party, Republican office holders, and indeed, a lot of voters, haven't thought through the whole program. They know what they don't like. Their concerns are legitimate. I happen to think that the American people's real problem isn't about jobs. I don't know very many people who think that some illegal immigrant from Mexico is going to come in and take their job.
That's not what's happening. It's not about the crime and all those things, although that exists. I think what the concern is, is that we've had waves of immigrants that have not been able to be absorbed. They haven't been assimilated. And as a result, people are concerned about what they see as the Balkanization of American culture and the American nation. And I think neither side really talks about it in those terms.
INSKEEP: Do you still have a problem for what we might think of as the Republican Coalition? Because you've got business leaders who want cheap labor, let's be frank. You've got political leaders who would like the Hispanic vote. You've got cultural and other conservatives who are concerned about law and order and concerned about cultural coherence and it is hard to have those things mesh.
Mr. KEENE: Yes, absolutely. Well, some of these things don't always mesh, although, just as an example, when the Bush administration was putting its package together, I was invited with two or three other conservatives to sort of a day-long presentation, long before it was presented to the Congress. And at the end of it, I said you've got a lot of people here who are experts on trees, but you don't have anybody here who has looked at the forest. They said, we've talked to all the stakeholders. And I said, who are the stakeholders? And they said, well, we've talked to La Raza. We've talked to - they listed six or seven major companies that are employers of illegal aliens and others.
And I said, you know, those are not the stakeholders. It's the American people. I think that we got off on the wrong track on immigration reform because - and I told this to the White House and I've told it to others - is that what's needed when you have an issue of concern to so many Americans with so many different sub-issues, you've got to have a conversation with the people.
INSKEEP: I think a minute ago, you were on the way to saying that conservatives' concern with John McCain goes beyond his position on immigration or any one issue.
Mr. KEENE: That's the problem that he has with conservatives. It's not simply his positions on issues A, B and C. It's a sense that conservatives have gotten over the years that he doesn't like them, and that given his nature and the fact that he doesn't like them, that if he was in a position to do something about them, he would.
And that's created a queasy feeling about him that they haven't overcome. He can overcome that. He's got to convince conservatives during the course of the next few months that they're involved in a common enterprise. He also has to convince them that he is not - as part of his enterprise - going to try and remake the party and exclude them.
You know, he appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year.
INSKEEP: Big conference that you guys sponsor.
Mr. KEENE: Exactly. He appeared there, and he gave a good speech. But you can't solve a problem that has developed over a decade with one speech.
INSKEEP: You said conservatives want to know that John McCain isn't going to try to remake the Republican Party and leave them behind. Do you see a possibility or any evidence that he might want to do that?
Mr. KEENE: I don't think there's any possibility that he can. I think there's evidence that he might. Just as an example, he won the Virginia primary, and on that evening he gave a speech. And what I was interested in watching it on television was not so much the speech, but the picture that was on television.
And the picture was of John McCain, Tom Davis, a retiring member of Congress who, on retiring, denounced the Republican Party. His wife, who lost an assembly seat after having been campaigned for by Michael Bloomberg of New York because she was the liberal hope in Virginia...
INSKEEP: Republican who became an independent...
Mr. KEEN: Right, and a woman who has been the symbol of liberal Republicanism in Virginia for decades. And then John Warner, who's sort of the Republican past. At one point, the camera panned over the crowed, and there was George Allen back there and there were some young conservatives and all that, but they weren't in that picture. And that picture was broadcast across Virginia. And if you were a conservative Republican activist and saw that picture, a shiver went up your spine.
INSKEEP: The moderates or liberals were on stage.
Mr. KEENE: With the candidate.
INSKEEP: Conservative icons were shut out.
Mr. KEENE: Were shunned to the side. And if that's what's going on in state after the state, then either the McCain campaign is not sensitive to the problem, or they want to send a signal that they do want to, in fact, want to change the party. You know, if you don't know about it, if you're not part of it, you don't see that kind of thing as important as you do if you are part of it.
I can assure you that people who saw that picture, that were part of it, got the message. And I can assure you that whoever put that picture together knew what the message was.
INSKEEP: David Keene of the American Conservative Union. Thanks for coming by.
Mr. KEENE: It's a pleasure.
INSKEEP: David Keene recently wrote a commentary called, "We're Waiting, Senator McCain." You'll find a link to it at npr.org. We're going to continue talking to conservatives much of the week, and tomorrow, talk show host Glenn Beck tells us why he thinks the conservative movement needs to hit rock bottom.