If you read the threads on conservative Web sites, which these days takes a strong stomach, you'll frequently encounter the acronym "RINO." It stands for "Republican In Name Only," an appellation that self-styled conservative purists apply to any Republican who disagrees with them about anything.
That epithet has been applied most frequently to Arizona Sen. John McCain. But his former chief rival for the GOP nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, also has been derided as a RINO, as have former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Every GOP candidate who rose above the asterisk level in the primaries has been called a RINO.
The epithet is ridiculous, because it assumes that being conservative and being Republican are identical. Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower were good Republicans, but they weren't conservatives. Nor were Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, or George H. W. Bush.
A political party is a conspiracy to obtain power, nothing more. In democratic politics there is nothing wrong with that, because the conspiracies are peaceful, open, and - in a two-party system - moderating. For Republicans to be successful, they must embrace moderates as well as conservatives. This means moderates get to lead from time to time.
But the dyspeptic denizens of the Right believe in addition by subtraction. To make the GOP stronger, moderates must be smeared and driven from it. Polemicist Ann Coulter is so angry with Mr. McCain's occasional embrace of Democratic ideas that she says she'll campaign for the Democrats if Mr. McCain wins the nomination.
She says this sort of thing whenever she feels she's not getting enough attention. Her position is extreme, even among the extremists. But many, brimming with self righteousness, declare they'll stay home if Mr. McCain, or Mr. Huckabee wins the nomination. These people are the true RINOs. The logic of the conservative RINOs is puzzling. If they sit out the election as they threaten, one of two things will happen: either a Democrat will win the election or Mr. McCain will win without their support.
Because they have an exaggerated sense of both their numbers and their worth, the RINO conservatives assume the first is what will happen. But it might not. They need to consider the consequences for them if Mr. McCain were to win the presidency despite their nonparticipation in the general election. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, this is distinctly possible.
I tend not to believe in addition by subtraction, but there is one instance in modern political history in which it worked. In 1948, both the communist sympathizers and the segregationists defected from the Democratic party. Their defections made Harry Truman more attractive to the broad American middle, which fueled his upset victory over Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.
There are a lot of Democrats who don't like Hillary Clinton very much. If there is a protracted, bitter fight with Barack Obama and she wins in a way some regard as underhanded, many would be inclined to vote for Mr. McCain - especially if the conservative RINOs have trumpeted their disdain for him.
If Mr. McCain wins despite the opposition of the RINOs, he'll owe them nothing, and it is doubtful he will have warm and fuzzy feelings about them. The conservative RINOs will have marginalized themselves in the same way Pat Buchanan did when he bolted the GOP.
Marginalization also, I suspect, will be the outcome if the conservative RINOs succeed in electing a Democrat by sulking in their tents. They assume that after a President Clinton or President Obama surrenders in the war on terror, throws the economy into recession, and packs the Supreme Court with liberals, those benighted souls who voted for Mr. McCain in the primaries will come crawling to them and say, "We're sorry we offended your tender sensibilities. Please take over the leadership of our party." I doubt it will work out that way. I know I'll never forgive such summer soldiers and sunshine patriots, who put their bruised egos ahead of the security of their country.
We're in the midst of a war we can't afford to lose. There is a stark difference between Mr. McCain and the leading Democrats on this and many other issues. Spare me your phony airs of moral superiority, RINOs. To sit out this election would be like sitting out 1944.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org