THE race for the GOP nomination for president is all but over, save for the weeping and gnashing of teeth among conservatives.
I don't think Arizona Sen. John McCain would be a good president. He lacks the temperament for it, he has virtually no managerial experience, and the economy is, as George Will put it, "a subject with which Mr. McCain is neither conversant, nor eager to become so."
But there is a big difference between being a mediocre president - as one could argue George W. Bush has been - and being an awful one.
Many conservatives talk about Mr. McCain as if he were Satan's first cousin. What Web logger Roger Simon calls "McCain Derangement Syndrome" is as irrational and unbecoming as is the Bush Derangement Syndrome that afflicts so many liberals.
A McCain presidency means the end of conservatism and the end of the Republican party, MDS sufferers say. That this is a wildly exaggerated fear is illustrated by the spectacle of Mr. McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney claiming to be conservatives, when neither of them is, and accusing the other of being a liberal, which neither of them is.
The best description of both Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney is "moderate conservative." Mr. McCain has a lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union of 82, nearly identical to that of conservative hero Fred Thompson. Mr. McCain's rating for 2006 was just 65, but that's still substantially better than Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's 8, or New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's 9.
MDS sufferers tend not to notice that until quite recently, Mr. Romney embraced the deviations from conservative orthodoxy for which they wish to cast Mr. McCain into the outer darkness. Nor do they seem upset that Mr. Romney changes campaign themes as often as he changes his shirt.
Occasional deviation from conservative orthodoxy is not for a Republican the mortal sin MDS sufferers make it out to be. While it is true no Republican can be elected president without the support of the conservative base, it is also true that no Republican can be elected with the support only of the conservative base. When moderates are no longer comfortable in the Republican party, Democrats will win all the elections.
For this conservative, the paramount issue is winning the war on terror, because if we lose, nothing else will matter very much. Arguably, Mr. McCain is better suited than anyone else to lead us to victory.
The next most important issue to me is to appoint to the federal bench judges who will follow the Constitution. Mr. McCain supported the nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, but some are trying to manufacture doubt about who he'd appoint. There's no doubt about what kind of judges Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would choose.
With the economy softening, it is more important than ever to keep taxes low. Mr. McCain was wrong to oppose the Bush tax cuts, and his stubborn refusal to admit his mistake fuels MDS. But with Democrats in control of Congress, the issue is not whether taxes will be cut, but whether we can keep them from being raised. And on this Mr. McCain is on the side of the angels. But MDS sufferers say they'll sulk in their tents on election day. They'd rather punish Mr. McCain for sins past than protect us from a Clinton rerun or President Obama.
To gain the conservative support he needs in November, Mr. McCain must stress the issues on which he and conservatives agree. But he has a much more important decision to make.
Mr. McCain will be 72 years old Aug. 29. His mother Roberta is spry at 95, but both Mr. McCain's father and paternal grandfather died at younger ages than he is now. The person he chooses as a running mate could well be president, should Mr. McCain die in office, or retire after a single term.
Most vice presidential candidates are chosen to carry a state that might otherwise go to the other party. But the balance Mr. McCain needs isn't geographical. It's ideological and chronological - and maybe temperamental. His running mate must be solidly conservative, at least 10 years younger, qualified to be president and have expertise on the economy, where Mr. McCain falls short.
Mr. McCain could choose no better than Chris Cox, 55, who served 17 years in the House before becoming chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Handsome, articulate, and personable, and with no skeletons rattling around in his closet, Mr. Cox is described by friends as "scary smart." He could be the vaccine for MDS.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1476.